by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
Doctors often give the wrong advice regarding hearing aids for people with sensorineural hearing loss (often called nerve deafness). Here is a recent email I received.
I’m writing to you about a friend who has been diagnosed with Sudden Hearing Loss in his right ear. His hearing test showed a 65 dB loss. The doctor said that hearing aids would only amplify the mumbling sounds that he already hears in that ear, and thus he would not recommend a hearing aid. However, recently my friend walked into an Audiology Center and they assured him a hearing aid would help him tremendously. Should my friend look into this, or is this a scam?
Typically (and unfortunately) doctors don’t know much about hearing loss, so they generally give this erroneous advice–hearing aids don’t help in cases of nerve deafness–but this is total rubbish. In contrast, audiologists are the professionals that are specifically trained to evaluate hearing loss and determine whether hearing aids will help. I’d listen to them.
The truth is, hearing aids are designed for people with nerve deafness. In fact, 90% of all adults with hearing loss have sensorineural hearing losses (nerve deafness). Thus, your friend should be able to hear much better with a properly-fitted hearing aid.
However, hearing loss is only one part of the equation. If all a hearing loss entailed was a lack of volume, then hearing aids would amplify sounds to give us normal hearing again.
The truth is, there are other factors to consider. A big one is called discrimination. Discrimination is how well you understand speech when it is at a comfortable listening level. A score of 100% means you understand everything when it is at your comfortable level, while a score of 0% means that all you would hear is loud gibberish, not intelligent speech, no matter how loud the sound is.
Unfortunately, most people with hearing loss also have some accompanying loss of discrimination. This makes it harder to understand speech than formerly (Why do you think they call us “hard of hearing” and not “soft of hearing”?)
If your friend’s discrimination score is 80% or higher, then a hearing aid should definitely help him. However, if it is 40% or less, then getting a hearing aid would be a waste of money. In fact, he would have more trouble understanding speech with a hearing aid, than he would just using his ears because the gibberish in his bad ear would interfere with his brain’s processing of the clear speech from his good ear.