University of Vermont

Hear and Now

Luse Center helps clients with hearing loss stay tuned In to life

Barry Heath, director of Fletcher Allen's Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, and patient at UVM's Eleanor M. Luse Center for Communication. (Photo: Rajan Chawla)

The evidence that Dr. Barry Heath was beginning to lose his hearing, like his grandfather, father and uncle before him, was getting hard for the director of Fletcher Allen’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit to ignore.

With increasing frequency, Heath, who is also a professor of pediatrics at UVM's College of Medicine, was asking colleagues to repeat words during rounds, especially when background noise interfered. In social situations, friends and family were patient with him, perhaps overly so.

But it was while observing his patients undergo surgery in the hospital's operating room that the cumulative effect of years of hearing decline hit Heath, then 56, with a thud.

“When people were wearing masks, it suddenly occurred to me I wasn’t hearing things. I was reading lips," Heath says, who nevertheless managed to communicate, albeit with difficulty. 

Heath wasted little time addressing the problem. He scheduled a hearing evaluation at UVM’s Eleanor M. Luse Center for Communication, where clinical faculty in the university’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders teach and work, and was outfitted with a set of high-tech digital hearing aids that put his life back on track. 

“Do you remember when Dorothy is in Oz and the movie goes from black and white to color?” he asks. “That’s what it was like.”  

Squawk box

Hearing aids circa 2012 bear little resemblance to the squawky boxes, tangle of wires, and ear canal-filling plugs that bedeviled the hearing impaired of earlier generations.

Not only are digital hearing aids free of analog whine and able to deliver crisp, high-fidelity sound, says Dinah Smith, an audiologist at the Luse Center and a clinical faculty member in the Communications Science and Disorders Department, they’re also unobtrusive to the point of being invisible.  

“Barry Heath wears hearing aids?” Fletcher Allen marketing and communications staffer Mike Noble asked incredulously after volunteering to help track down the busy M.D. for a phone interview on his hearing loss.

The programmed devices also have a virtual mind of their own.

“If it’s quiet, they say, OK, we’re going to give you surround sound,” Smith says. “Or, they can say:  People are starting to walk into this restaurant, they’re sitting down on the right side of the room and they are noisy, so we’re going to change the polarity of the microphones to try to minimize that rowdy group over there.”

NASCAR and IMAX

The new technology’s rapid advance is coming at an opportune time. Statistics show that hearing loss is much more common today than it was even 20 years ago.

An aging population explains some of the increase, says the Luse Center’s other audiologist, Elizabeth Adams, also a Communications Science and Disorders faculty member. But it’s also a fact, she says, that modern society assaults our hearing as never before, throwing everything from NASCAR races to high decibel IMAX theater soundtracks at our delicate inner ears.

Smith and Adams recommend fighting back -- with hearing protection like ear muffs or ear plugs. “If you’re mowing the lawn, wear hearing protection,” Adams says. “If you like snowmobiling, wear hearing protection.”

Both Smith and Adams are adamant about the damage caused by 21st century music listening habits, especially those of adolescents – one in 20 of whom have hearing loss severe enough to affect learning, up 30 percent from 20 years ago.

Their professional advice is to use ear plugs for live concerts and to roll back the volume knob on stereos, radios and mobile listening devices. Hearing loss can be progressive, they warn. Damage done early may bear bitter fruit in later years.

Smith isn’t above playing the vigilante when she sees, and hears, a case of ear bud abuse. “I’ll go up to a young person and say, ‘If I can hear it, it’s too loud. You are injuring yourself.’”

“Don’t work”

Although old stigmas are starting to fade as awareness of the new hearing aids grows, an obstacle to their more widespread use remains – ironically one meant to put them in the hands of more people more cheaply. 

Hearing aid dispensers, found in malls and box stores, some with well known brand names, have a simple business proposition. They offer devices that are marginally cheaper than those an audiologist would sell, along with service – consisting of a hearing exam and programming of the hearing aids provided by a minimally trained tech – that is nearly free.

All too often, the result is a customer who has saved a little money but can’t get the devices to function properly – and is happy to spread the word among friends that hearing aids don’t work.

What’s missing from the equation, say Smith and Adams, is something fundamental: an audiologist, a trained professional with a masters or doctoral degree who has studied the anatomy and physiology of the ear and has been trained to delve deeply into the complexity of hearing loss and its treatment.   

While a hearing test is relatively easy to administer, and software can program hearing aids to address hearing gaps, that’s just the beginning, says Adams.

Clients at the Luse Center make five or six trips to their audiologist, beginning with an interview designed to uncover the hearing needs of the client’s particular lifestyle and a hearing exam in a sound-treated booth. Once hearing aids have been ordered, clients come back for a fitting, then return to give feedback on how they’re working, which gives the audiologist real-time data with which to make adjustments.

Part of the follow-up involves inserting a hair-thin tube connected to a microphone next to the client’s eardrum while hearing aids are in place to see exactly what sound they are delivering – which provides more data for further tweaking. 

What Smith and Adams find so rewarding about their work is that they are treating not just hearing loss but the overall health of their clients.  

“If you can’t hear well, you can become very isolated and start to withdraw,” Smith says. “It’s not unusual for people with hearing loss to become depressed. And after sinking into that more depressed state, it’s easy to kind of give up and maybe not take such good care of yourself.” The latest research even suggests a link between hearing loss and the onset of dementia. 

Stopping this kind of decline is its tracks, as happened in the case of Heath, is what makes Smith’s and Adams’ world go round.

“I just started hearing things,” Heath says. “It was really a great difference.”