Believe Your Ears

How to recognize early signs of hearing loss and what you should do next.


When he was a child, Nate Berg, audiologist at the nonprofit HEAR Wisconsin, contracted meningitis, an inflammation of the protective membranes covering the spinal cord and brain. The disease left him with diminished hearing in one ear.

“A unique quality of the staff at HEAR Wisconsin is that many of us have hearing losses and loved ones who are deaf or hearing impaired,” Berg notes. As a result, the staff uniquely understands the concerns of individuals and families who turn to them for assistance in dealing with hearing issues.

By far, what brings people into HEAR Wisconsin’s West Allis headquarters is hearing loss due to aging, Berg says. However, hearing loss can also be genetic, or attributed to multiple ear infections and other diseases affecting the inner and outer ear. Exposure to loud noises, such as those found in factories, the military or associated with noisy hobbies or professions, can also lead to hearing impairment, Berg points out. HEAR Wisconsin’s services also include a store specializing in adaptive equipment for people with hearing loss, a Birth to Three program specifically for infants and toddlers who are deaf or hearing impaired, American Sign Language interpreters and classes, and speech language pathologist and audiologist services.

Lisa Hart, owner and practitioner at Hart Hearing Care Centers, says most people begin to notice that something is amiss when they hear people speaking, but cannot understand them over the background noise. They may also be asking their spouse or partner to repeat themselves or they may be having difficulty understanding phone conversations.

“In social settings is when people really start to notice,” Hart explains. “The saddest part of all of that is that people start to isolate themselves because they are embarrassed, worried that they will laugh at part of a joke that isn’t funny. When somebody starts to isolate themselves is when I really feel that hearing loss has to be addressed immediately.”

Initially, the person experiencing diminished hearing should be tested to determine the cause of the problem. They may simply have a buildup of earwax, for example, or they may be diagnosed with tinnitus (ringing in the ear), issues related to the eardrum or the transmission of signals from the ear to the brain.

Both Hart and Berg emphasize that if any medical treatment can help the hearing loss, it has to be ruled out before the patient can be fitted with an assistive device such as a hearing aid. Hart cautions patients to see a licensed hearing professional versus buying a device online or by mail order.

“Be tested by a hearing professional always, be fitted by a hearing professional always, and be certain that you are working with somebody you are comfortable with and [are] confident in their ability,” Hart says. “This isn’t a one-size-fits-all, one-stop situation.”

Hart adds that some people buy a device online or through the mail because they are told it’s the same quality as devices costing much more. But they may be purchasing a hearing aid that will not actually help, and end up buying a costlier device that works for them in addition to their “bargain” hearing aid.

Some of the newest hearing aids on the market can be wirelessly streamed to iPhones, iPads and TVs using Bluetooth technology.  They can also be used with Android technology using an intermediary device, Hart notes.
Berg agrees that hearing aids are constantly being updated as technology advances. In recent years, hearing aid manufacturers have produced rechargeable devices, and feedback systems have improved dramatically.
Patients should keep in mind that the sooner they address hearing loss, the better their outcome, according to Berg, so that the brain continues to receive signals through the ear. Without that stimulation, the body’s hearing system can begin to atrophy.

“Research shows that the sooner they get the aid, that can help with dementia,” Berg says. “It’s like the old adage: If you don’t use it, you lose it.” MKE