Worried about the reliability of hearing tests? Wondering if your test results could be wrong? It’s unlikely, but here’s what it could be instead….
Jimmy got his first pair of hearing aids back in 2016 at the age of 63. He wished he’d gotten them years ago when he’d first started noticing how hearing loss was impacting his work, relationships, and mental well-being. But better late than never.
It wasn’t uncommon for his wife to call him from the other room three or four times before he heard her. That scared him because what if she were hurt?
On the phone at work, conference calls would fade in and out, yet he knew it wasn’t a bad connection.
He often felt tired after social situations, like he’d just run a marathon with his ears, trying to hear his buddies around the card table.
He was looking forward to putting that all behind him, so he scheduled an appointment, got fitted for hearing aids, and walked out the door ready to embrace life with the ability to hear again.
But within hours of getting his new aids, he knew something wasn’t right.
He could hear pretty well in a quiet room with one or two people, but if there were any background noise at all, it felt like his aids were turned off. He’d checked them more than once.
The hearing aids just weren’t working the way he expected.
Hearing test reliability
In babies, hearing testing is notoriously unreliable. As many as 10% of infants leave the hospital having failed their hearing test. But when retested just a month later, most of them have excellent hearing. This can be attributed to fluid build-up and the fact that some babies are more cooperative than others during testing.
Tests on non-infant children and adults, on the other hand, are incredibly accurate. In fact, each tone used during the hearing test is usually twice as loud as the last. A hearing specialist would, therefore, have to make a major miscalculation to give you flawed results.
If this is the case, why do so many people leave a hearing professional’s office feeling that the test has to be wrong?
We hear with more than our ears
You think of your ears as the “hearing” part of your body. But the sound that enters those ears are just sound waves. While your ear “collects” the sounds, it’s your brain that has to interpret what different sound wave patterns mean. A bark. A tea kettle. A voice. The letter “b.” They only sound like something you recognize because you heard it before, and your brain is able to classify and interpret what that sound meant.
In fact, you haven’t always been able to hear and understand language in a crowded room. As you grew up, your brain learned how to focus on what you want to hear.
But what happens to the brain when it stops hearing certain sounds over an extended period of time?
The forgetful brain
The brain is amazingly resourceful. It shifts its resources where they’re needed, often by taking those resources away from a part of the brain that you’re not using. In Jimmy’s case, he admitted that he’d known about the hearing loss for years and had waited to get hearing aids. Because of that, his brain had shifted resources away from the place where he processes sounds.
As it did, that part of his brain began to be neglected. Over time it becomes less able to process sound even after getting new hearing aids. Jimmy learned that the longer people wait to get their first hearing aids, the worse this brain atrophy becomes.
So what’s the point of hearing aids if the brain lost its ability to understand what sounds mean? Can you still get your hearing back?
Here’s the good news.
Retraining the brain
You can retrain the brain to understand these sounds. It doesn’t take as long as you might think. But it does take some commitment to hear better. Within a month or more after getting fitted for hearing aids, if you practice, it’ll get better day after day. Here’s how to do it.
- Wear your hearing aids at least 8 hours a day from the moment you get them. This may feel uncomfortable at first. But power through it.
- Find a friend who can work with you most days for at least an hour a day. You can also practice on your own, but practicing conversations is important.
- Have a one-on-one conversation in a quiet room. Do this for a few days until you feel very comfortable with how you hear.
- Turn on the TV or radio in the background. Continue to work together until you’re confident.
- Go to a restaurant, the park, the grocery store, or another noisy place to practice hearing.
As you take these steps, you’ll retrain your brain to hear at its best with your hearing aids.