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Hearing Aid Evolution Unveils What The World Sounds Like In ‘3-D’

Doctor Fitting Female Patient With Hearing Aid

As hearing aid technology has improved, so has health reporter Kathleen Raven’s confidence.

When she was 5 years old, she found out she had a hearing problem. Complications during her birth led to damage in her inner ear.

“I couldn’t hear water dripping from a faucet. I couldn’t hear crickets on a summer night,” she tells NPR’s Kelly McEvers. “I couldn’t hear sirens, couldn’t hear fire alarms in our school fire drills, so I did a lot of watching other people.”

The diagnosis was moderate to severe loss of high- and low-frequency hearing. When it comes to speech, certain sounds are out of range for her. Sounds like “ch,” “sh” and “th” blend together.

Raven says she reads lips “religiously,” but when she can’t see a person’s lips, she can understand maybe every third word — that is, without a hearing aid.

She got her first hearing aids — a large, clunky set — back when she was 5 in 1993.

“They were about 2 inches long and very thick, and they connected to a very large ear mold inside my ear,” she says. “They call them flesh-colored, but they’re not the color of anyone’s flesh.” Her young classmates teased her.

But the technology kept changing. Every few years, her parents would shell out $4,000 to $5,000 on each new device. By the time she got to high school, she had her first completely inside-the-ear hearing aid. That changed everything.

“I just became more confident walking into crowds. I didn’t try to hide, I didn’t arrange my hair to cover my ears. I started being more talkative, going out with my friends more,” says Raven. “I didn’t realize how much that fear had impacted me until I got completely in-the-ear hearing aids.”

She went on to college and started pursuing her dream of reporting.

“I encountered a few raised eyebrows along the way,” she says. “Why do you want to make a living of hearing people when that’s a challenge for you?”

She pushed past the skeptics and became a reporter. Today she writes about oncology for BioPharm Insight.

As years passed and the technology progressed, Raven thought her hearing had maxed out. But with each upgrade, she discovered more sounds. Two years ago, she received her latest pair, which cost $7,000.

When her audiologist put them in her ears, she heard an unfamiliar noise. “I just happened to smack my lips together, like you’re tasting something,” she recalls. “It’s just such a simple sound, but it was earth-shattering.”

Her audiologist put on Beethoven, and she heard new instruments and trills. “It was like seeing the world in 3-D, or hearing the world in 3-D for the first time,” Raven says.

These latest hearing aids are basically invisible. Even still, now she tells people about her hearing loss.

“Five years ago, I still was not ever telling people unless it was absolutely necessary. And now I do work it into conversation in the first five minutes or so,” she says. If she needs to ask someone to repeat something, she’ll just add, “I have a hearing problem.”

“That phrase was impossible for me to say for the first 20 years of my life,” Raven says. “Now I think it’s very important for hearing loss to be accepted for younger people, of course, and also for older people.”

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Older Hispanic Men at Risk of Hearing Loss

Adult Hispanic Man

Income, education, noise exposure also play role in odds people will lose their hearing, researchers say.

A survey of Hispanic Americans finds older men are at especially high risk of losing their hearing.

A team led by Karen Cruickshanks of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, tracked data from a survey of more than 16,400 Hispanics, aged 18 to 74, in New York, Chicago, Miami and San Diego. The investigators found that 15 percent had hearing impairment and more than 8 percent had hearing loss in both ears.

In general, men and adults aged 45 and older had higher rates of hearing impairment, Cruickshank’s team reported in the May 28 online edition of JAMA: Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery.

The odds of having impaired hearing rose as incomes and educational attainment fell, the survey showed. Factors such as noise exposure, diabetes and prediabetes were also associated with hearing loss.

Experts said the study highlights the threat of hearing loss for Hispanic populations, and possible ways to prevent it.

“Good health care, nutrition, and safe working environments are important for promoting good hearing health in all populations,” said Arlene Romoff, past president of the Hearing Loss Association of New Jersey.

“Treating hearing impairment as a significant health care consideration for the Hispanic/Latino population, hopefully, will translate into better screening for hearing impairment in the general population as well,” she said.

Hispanic men were at special risk, the study found. Among those aged 45 and older, rates of hearing impairment were about 29 percent for men with Dominican background, 41 percent for Puerto Rican men, nearly 18 percent for women with Mexican background, and about 32 percent for women with a mixed Hispanic background.

Do genetics play a role? That’s not yet clear, according to another expert.

“Is auditory deficit different in the study population because of genetic factors or is it cultural based and adversely affected by lower income level and education?” said Dr. Darius Kohan, chief of otology/neurotology at Lenox Hill Hospital and the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital in New York City.

He also believes that too many people with hearing problems simply put up with condition.

“It is well known that about 40 million Americans would benefit from amplification of their hearing deficits, but only a small fraction seek help,” Kohan said.

Romoff agreed, but added that cost is often a barrier.

She said the new study may help spur “better insurance coverage for hearing aids — currently not covered by Medicare or most health insurance plans.”

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Obesity and Hearing Loss: Obesity Linked to Greater Risk of Hearing Loss in Teens

Beautiful large woman at the university campus

Experts urge screening of overweight kids because many may be unaware their hearing is impaired.

In addition to the well-known health risks of being overweight, a new study finds that obese teens may be at increased risk for hearing loss.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from nearly 1,500 adolescents, aged 12 to 19, who took part in the 2005 to 2006 U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Obese adolescents had greater hearing loss across all frequencies and were nearly twice as likely to have one-sided, low-frequency hearing loss, compared to their normal-weight peers.

The study was released online June 17 in advance of publication in an upcoming issue of the journal The Laryngoscope.

“This is the first paper to show that obesity is associated with hearing loss in adolescents,” study first author Dr. Anil Lalwani, a professor and vice chairman for research in the department of otolaryngology/head & neck surgery at Columbia University Medical Center, said in a Columbia news release.

He and his colleagues theorized that obesity-caused inflammation may contribute to hearing loss. Nearly 17 percent of U.S. teens are obese.

“These results have several important public health implications,” Lalwani said. “Because previous research found that 80 percent of adolescents with hearing loss were unaware of having hearing difficulty, adolescents with obesity should receive regular hearing screening so they can be treated appropriately to avoid [brain] and behavioral issues.”

The nearly twofold increased risk of one-sided, low-frequency hearing loss in obese teens is particularly concerning because it suggests early, and possibly ongoing, injury to the inner ear that could progress as obese teens become obese adults, the researchers said in the news release.

Further research is needed to determine how hearing loss in obese teens affects their social development, school performance, behavior and thinking skills.

“Furthermore, hearing loss should be added to the growing list of the negative health consequences of obesity that affect both children and adults — adding to the impetus to reduce obesity among people of all ages,” Lalwani said.

Although the study found an association between obesity and hearing loss in teens, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

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10 Common Noises That Can Cause Permanent Hearing Loss


One in seven people between the ages of 45 and 64 have hearing loss — are you taking the proper precautions to protect yourself?

Confronting My Hearing Loss

“I first noticed my hearing loss in my late 50s. Like most people, I ignored it because I thought it didn’t interfere with my life. I also thought acknowledging it would make me old. Over the next 10 years, my hearing worsened and I realized how it was affecting relationships with my family. I thought my grandchildren were mumbling and whispering all the time because I could hardly understand them, especially over the phone.

It took an ear infection to learn how bad my hearing really was. My ENT doctor confirmed my hearing loss and referred me to an audiology practice to be fitted for hearing aids.

I regret waiting so long to do something about my hearing loss. I missed so many conversations and special moments with my husband, children and grandchildren. That’s why I tell people who haven’t addressed their hearing loss, ‘What are you waiting for?'”
— Patty Koele, 71, Ocala, FL

About 14 percent of people between the ages of 45–64 have some type of hearing loss, which you might notice as difficulty following conversations or trouble hearing children and women with high voices. (For a full list of the typical signs and symptoms of early hearing loss, visit Plus, one in three people over the age of 65 have hearing loss, but, like Patty, they tend to wait a long time before doing something about it—seven years on average.

The reasons for delaying treatment probably sound familiar:

  • Denial and the perception the problem isn’t that serious
  • Negative associations of hearing loss and being old or disabled
  • Due to gradual onset, those with hearing loss literally don’t know what they are missing
  • Not realizing that some hearing loss can be kept from worsening by early treatment

Why Hearing Loss Happens

There are three types of hearing loss: conductive (CHL), sensorineural (SNHL), and mixed which includes both types.

CHL hearing loss is a mechanical problem: for some reason, your outer or middle ear isn’t able to vibrate properly in response to sound waves. Causes include too much ear wax, fluid due to infection, a hole in the eardrum, and otosclerosis, which is an overgrowth of the bone in your middle ear.

SNHL is the most common type of hearing loss and is caused by noise exposure, medications and age, to name a few. “Though hearing loss is often attributed to natural aging, in fact, hearing loss may be congenital (inherited) or exacerbated by excessive noise,” says Leigh Ann Watts, Au.D., CCC-A, an audiologist at Beneficial Hearing Aid Center who treated Koele. “Noise is all around us, every day, from television to lawn mowers to household appliances. It’s unavoidable, yet can be harmful in excess.”

What Counts as Excessive Noise?

Frightening fact: Hearing loss can occur after a one-time noise exposure at 120 decibels, such as gunfire, or continuous noise exposure to dangerous levels of 85 decibels or above over a prolonged period of time. It’s important to know what levels are safe in order to protect your hearing:

110-140 decibels:

  • Rock concert or jet engine
  • Firecracker
  • Nail gun
  • Ambulance siren
  • Chainsaw
  • Home stereo speakers at maximum volume

* Just 1 minute of exposure to noises at this level can result in permanent hearing loss, according to the National Institutes of Health.

85-100 decibels:

  • Garbage truck
  • Power mower
  • Motorcycle
  • Snowmobile
  • Jackhammer

* Continual exposure to noises in this range can cause permanent hearing loss.

“I recommend maintaining levels below 75 decibels and listening to your ears,” says Dr. Watts. “If a sound is too loud, remove yourself from the situation or put on proper hearing protection.” For reference, a normal conversation typically hits about 60 decibels.

What You Can Do If You Do Have Hearing Loss

Fortunately, 90 percent of SNHL hearing loss (caused by excessive noise or aging) can be improved by wearing a hearing aid, and CHL hearing loss (caused by a mechanical problem) can be reversed or significantly improved with medical or surgical treatment, says Dr. Watts.

No matter your specific needs or lifestyle, she recommends the following hearing aid features, if you and your doctor decide to go that route:

  • Directional microphones – this feature has been proven to improve hearing in places with heavy ambient noise.
  • Telecoils – this special circuitry within a hearing aid prevents feedback (or whistling) when you’re on the phone.
  • Bluetooth technology – this allows for wireless connection from your hearing aid directly to cell phones and TVs.
  • Rechargeable hearing aid batteries – they’re super convenience and a must for people with visual or dexterity issues.

If you’re over 50, hearing aids may conjure visions of clunky, uncomfortable monstrosities—a cure worse than the condition. But today’s hearing aids come in comfortable, discreet designs and provide natural-sounding hearing in a wide variety of environments. Another modern benefit: Hearing aids are also available with tinnitus therapy settings for those suffering from ringing in the ear.

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Is My Hearing Loss Permanent?

Old man, senior executive having hearing problems

One of the hardest things about being an Audiologist is having to tell people that they have a hearing loss. Most people come to see me after they are already suspecting a hearing loss. There are certain signs of hearing loss that they may have started to notice. But, having their suspicions confirmed that they indeed do have hearing loss can be disheartening.

One of the first questions I get from people is whether or not their hearing loss is permanent. They want to know whether a certain medication or procedure can simply restore their hearing to normal? Well, in most cases the answer to that question is “yes, your hearing loss is permanent”. But, not always! Whether a hearing loss is permanent or not depends on what is causing the hearing loss.

There are several different causes of hearing loss. First, I will discuss some causes of hearing loss which may be reversible.

Wax Build-up in the Ear Canal
There is supposed to be some wax (cerumen) in the ear canal. It acts as a protective mechanism to keep debris out of the ear canal and protects the ear drum. Some people produce more wax than others. This may depend on race, genetics, and/or diet. In most cases, wax will work its way out of the ear naturally. However, for those people who produce a significant amount of wax, a build-up in the ear canal can occur. Using Q-tips to attempt to clean the ear canals can make the build-up worse. If a wax occlusion occurs in the ear canal, your hearing can be affected. Once the wax is cleaned out (by a professional) then your hearing should improve if there is no other cause of hearing loss.

Foreign Body in Ear Canal
Just like with wax, if anything is stuck in the ear canal, it will hinder transmission of sound to the ear. This will cause a temporary change in hearing. Once the foreign body has been removed, hearing should return to normal.

Hole in the Ear Drum
A perforation of the ear drum can cause a temporary hearing loss. This may occur due to a trauma or infection such as:

  • an object puncturing the ear drum (another reason not to use Q-tips)
  • a blunt force trauma to the side of the head or explosion
  • quick change in ear pressure (such as when diving or flying)
  • build-up in pressure behind the ear drum from a middle ear infection.

Depending on the size of the hole, it is likely to heal on its own. Certain precautions will need to be taken, such as keeping water out of the ear to allow proper healing. In more severe cases, a procedure known as a tympanoplasty can be performed to patch the ear drum. In most cases, once the ear drum is healed the hearing will return as well.

Ear Infections
Ear infections can occur in the ear canal (outer ear) or behind the ear drum (middle ear). Outer ear infections can be fungal or bacterial and are usually treated with a series of ear drops. Middle ear infections occur more commonly in children and are treated using antibiotics, or placing a tube in the ear drum to allow the fluid to drain. In either case, a hearing loss caused by an outer ear or middle ear infection will improve once the infection has cleared.

Other Middle Ear Disorders
There are a few other ear problems that can occur with the ear, that usually causes a temporary hearing loss. A stiffening of the bones of the middle ear, called otosclerosis, can cause a change in hearing. This can be corrected with a surgical procedure which will likely improve hearing, however this is never a guarantee.

Another middle ear disorder, known as a cholesteatoma, is a build-up of tissue in the middle ear space. This may be genetic or may be a result of chronic untreated ear infections. The cholesteatoma may be removed via surgery, however the longer it goes untreated, the greater likelihood of the hearing loss becoming permanent.

Idiopathic Sudden Sensory Hearing Loss
This is a sudden change in hearing (within 3 days). The causes of a sudden hearing loss may include an inner ear viral infection, vascular compromise to the inner ear, or other inner ear dysfunction. The treatment will range depending on the likely cause such as anti-inflammatory agents or vasodilators. The outcome for hearing to return is usually good, depending on how quickly it is treated.

In most of the above cases of temporary hearing loss, the problem occurs to one ear or the other. On the other hand, most cases of permanent hearing loss occur to both ears. Here are some of the causes of a permanent hearing loss.

Birth Defect
In some cases of prematurity or complications, a baby can be born without certain ear mechanisms. This will result in a permanent hearing loss that may be able to be corrected only with hearing technology.

Noise-induced Hearing Loss
Extended exposure to loud noises, such as gunfire, explosions, music, or machinery can affect hearing. Noise damages the tiny hair cells in the inner ear. Once these are damaged, they cannot be restored. At first, the noise exposure may cause a temporary hearing change, but the more exposure the more likely the hearing loss will become permanent.

The most common cause of hearing loss is from aging. The term used for hearing loss due to aging is called presbycusis. This is usually a very gradual loss of hearing over time. It can be genetic. This is a permanent hearing loss. People experiencing age-related hearing loss can benefit from hearing aids, and the sooner you get them the better.

In most cases ototoxicity can cause a permanent hearing loss. This is medication-induced hearing loss. The most common medications which can cause hearing loss are chemotherapy agents, certain intravenous antibiotics, or loop diuretics. Talk to your doctor about having your hearing monitored if you begin any of these medications.

Permanent hearing loss is most commonly called sensorineural hearing loss. This describes the part of the ear in which the hearing loss is occurring. Sensory refers to the Cochlea (inner ear organ) and neural refers to the hearing nerve which runs to the brain. In a permanent hearing loss, any portion of the inner ear or nerve can be disordered.


This may include hearing aids, assisitive listening devices, or implantable devices, depending on the degree of your hearing loss.

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