09 Jun Ask your Audiologist
Can a hearing aid restore my hearing?
-Thanks to Mrs. S. Omrah of Halifax, NS for this question.
Restoring? No. Improving? Yes!
When a person loses eyesight, a pair of eyeglasses restores their vision. So why does the same principle not hold true for hearing?
Hearing loss is in some ways similar to a vision loss, as it’s the loss or degeneration of one of our 5 vital senses. If detected and treated early with a hearing aid, when there is only damage to the outer hair cells of the cochlea, it is very much like improving vision loss with glasses. Amplifying the sound to the ear in this case is similar to magnifying sight with glasses, and people have good success with improving their hearing.
The difficulty comes when there has been a long standing hearing loss that is more significant and has not been treated with amplification. This type of hearing loss involves the inner hair cells. Simply turning up or magnifying the sound does not necessarily mean improved word understanding. Unlike the outer hair cell damage, the inner hair cell damage causes problems with clarity of speech and simply turning up the volume may not be enough. This type of hearing loss would be comparable to macular degeneration in our eyes, where glasses would not make everything clearer to see.
Our auditory system is a wondrous and vast system that involves so many parts of bodies. From the most visible part, our outer ear, we move inside to the ear canal, where we find the eardrum and a chain of 3 tiny bones (the ossicles – hammer, anvil and stirrup). After the ossicles, we have the cochlea, which houses both outer and inner hair cells, and then the auditory nerve which feeds the information from the cochlea up to the auditory cortex in the brain. When hearing loss occurs, it is generally due to a loss of the hair cells in the cochlea, which play a vital role in conducting sound along the whole auditory system and delivering it to the brain. It is here, in the brain, where sound is actually “heard” or processed so that we understand what we have just heard.
Word discrimination, or word recognition, is a vital part of a complete hearing evaluation. This part of the hearing test takes a bit longer but is essential in determining what a person is hearing, or processing, and whether they are a candidate for wearing a hearing aid. Sadly, not all practitioners provide this level of testing; however, most reputable private practice audiologists do indeed test for this component of a person’s overall hearing health.
Why does word recognition matter?
Quite simply, because a hearing aid will not restore your hearing to what it once was, or what is considered normal. Our auditory system is too complex to allow an external piece of hardware, or a hearing aid, to create the same function that is routed in our biological and physiological makeup.
So, louder is better?
Simply turning the volume of the aid louder does not improve one’s ability to hear speech, particularly if an individual has poor word recognition scores. Word recognition scores reflect the brain’s ability to process those sounds (regardless of volume) into something meaningful. Remember, our actual ear only takes sound in, and when an aid is worn, the ear is still doing its job of taking the sound in through the hearing aid, however, that sound is then processed through the auditory nerve and interpreted by our brain. If there is damage to the auditory nerve, as evidenced by poor word recognition scores, or damage to the auditory cortex in the brain, no matter how loud the sound is, the brain cannot process it efficiently, and therefore people cannot “hear” it (more an issue of understanding than hearing).
A hearing aid will amplify a sound; that is its main function. A hearing aid WILL help you to hear soft sounds, make conversations easier and less stressful, understand speech and cope with background noise. A hearing aid WILL improve listening and communication and research clearly shows it will improve your quality of life. Motivation is the key, as it is in many aspects of life. If you are motivated to improve your hearing, we’re here to help answer your questions and concerns and set you on a path to better hearing health.