Hearing loss, especially age-related hearing loss, often occurs gradually. Many people do not notice their hearing beginning to change, and a few years can go by before their hearing loss begins to interfere with their communication and activities of normal life. Even once you (and possibly your family) have noticed a change in your hearing, you may be uncertain as to when to do something about it. Today we answer another Big Question: How long should you wait before getting hearing aids?

Take the first step:

It’s never too early for a hearing test. Even if you have not noticed your hearing changing, a good baseline is very useful as a comparison moving forward. Many professional bodies recommend that adults over 50 should have their hearing tested at least every 3 years, and more often if there are any risk factors for hearing loss such as a history of excessive noise exposure, treatment with ototoxic medication, or a family history of hearing loss. If you are over 50 and haven’t had a hearing test in the last 3 years, it’s a good idea to have one done, even if you feel there is nothing wrong with your hearing.

Regular monitoring:

With regular testing, your audiologist should be able to see the general pattern of your hearing and identify any possible hearing loss early. The hearing test may identify mild hearing loss, which may or may not be having an impact on your life. Sometimes a mild hearing loss requires hearing aids or other intervention right away, and sometimes a ‘watch and wait’ approach may be taken. Your audiologist may recommend that you move up to annual testing to monitor the progression of your loss more closely. Once hearing loss has been diagnosed, management options will be discussed, and if hearing aids are deemed to be the most appropriate option for you, your audiologist will make a recommendation.

Can you fit hearing aids too early?

The research shows us the early intervention and stimulation of the auditory pathway as soon as hearing loss is identified is the best practice for most patients. If someone with a very mild loss is aware of some increased strain while listening, or feels they are missing out on some sounds, it may be worth trialling with hearing aids to see whether they can make a marked improvement to their life. Even if the loss is mild, hearing aids will still stimulate the auditory pathway and auditory cortex of the brain, so fitting sooner rather than later may help to slow down the neural deterioration part of the loss. Some people with normal hearing thresholds may still have what is referred to as ‘hidden hearing loss’, which impacts on their ability to distinguish between speech and background noise, as well as other more subtle nuances of hearing. In rare cases, even these people may benefit from wearing hearing aids even though they do not have diagnosed hearing loss.

However, although the results of the hearing assessment are the scientific part of hearing aid evaluation, they are not the only factors we consider. Some people with very slight to mild hearing losses may not notice any difficulty hearing, nor any improvement with hearing aids. In these cases, it can be best to wait and monitor the loss until the benefit from the hearing aids will be more significant. Some people with milder hearing losses might not be emotionally ready for hearing aids, especially if the loss comes as a shock. Sometimes it’s best to give the person some time to process the results before rushing ahead with hearing aids that they are not ready for, and will likely not accept. In this case, hearing aid fitting before the patient is ready may actually deter them from taking action in the long-term, which is more problematic than waiting a short time and fitting the hearing aids when they are ready to accept them.

When is too late?

Some people think that they should wait until they truly cannot cope with their hearing loss before getting hearing aids. This is a common misconception that can have a devastating impact on the person’s ability to hear even with hearing aids. As hearing loss is allowed to develop untreated, the auditory nerve and auditory cortex of the brain are being understimulated and slowly begin to deteriorate or are ‘taken over’ by other brain functions, such as the visual part of the brain. Once this has started to happen, it is very difficult for the person to learn to hear with hearing aids the way one might if the loss was managed earlier. Even with the best and most expensive hearing aids on the market, it is very difficult to overcome a long-term, untreated hearing loss. It is also far more difficult to adjust to the sound of hearing aids if the loss has been left untreated for many years.

So, how long should you wait before getting hearing aids?

A decision on the best time to get hearing aids should be made in partnership with your audiologist, who you should be seeing regularly for hearing testing once you are over 50. Yes, in some cases of mild hearing loss, your audiologist may recommend waiting until the loss has progressed a bit further before fitting hearing aids, but it is also crucial that you do not wait too long. Fitting hearing aids in the early stage of hearing loss allows for the best possible benefit from the instruments as well as better long-term outcomes because the hearing aids provide stimulation to the auditory nerve and auditory cortex of the brain. Therefore, in most cases, getting hearing aids sooner rather than later is generally advised.

Remember that the decision to get hearing aids, as well as which hearing aids to get, should always be made in partnership with your audiologist. If you suspect that you may have even a mild hearing loss, have a test done and form a relationship with an audiologist that you can trust. They will be able to help you know when the right time for hearing aids is for you. If you have any questions about hearing aids or hearing testing, contact us, or comment below.