Ask the Doctors - When should a hearing test become part of a checkup?


My parents, who are in their late 70s, are both now using hearing aids. This makes me wonder – when should a hearing test become part of an annual checkup?

Our ears connect us to the world and yet until something goes wrong, hearing is one of the senses we seem to take for granted.

It’s a good idea to have a hearing test as a baseline when you’re a relatively young adult so that, if you develop a hearing issue later, the audiologist can have a useful comparison. You can talk to your family doctor about giving you a hearing test, or seek out the help of a hearing professional known as an audiologist.

The thing about hearing loss is that it usually happens so gradually you may not even be aware of it. It’s not until you run into problems such as frequently asking people to repeat themselves or cranking up the volume on your TV that you realize something has changed.

Hearing is a complex process. When you hear a sound, your brain is interpreting electrical signals that it receives via the auditory nerve. These signals originate in the delicate structures within your inner ear, which receive sound – that is, vibrations – and turn them into nerve impulses.

It’s important to identify hearing loss as soon as possible. Studies suggest a link between hearing loss and serious conditions such as depression or dementia. An early diagnosis and successful intervention can reduce symptoms of depression and help preserve cognitive function.

If you think you may be having trouble with your hearing, you’re not alone. About 15 percent of American adults report some form of hearing problem. Signs that you may be experiencing hearing loss may include:

  • Frequently asking people to repeat themselves
  • Having trouble pinpointing the source or direction of a loud noise
  • Trouble hearing telephone conversations
  • You’ve been told the volume of your TV or radio is excessively loud
  • Difficulty understanding a person who isn’t facing you as he speaks
  • Struggling to hear conversations in noisy environments, like a restaurant
  • Difficulty understanding high-pitched voices
  • You’ve been told by others that your hearing seems impaired

If you’ve said yes several times while reading the list, a hearing test is a good idea. It will reveal whether you have hearing loss in either ear, pinpoint the type of hearing loss, and to what degree it has progressed.

There are several types of hearing tests.

A physical exam with an instrument called an otoscope reveals any problems in your ear canal or eardrum. Additional tests include a pure tone test, which reveals how well you can hear – you guessed it – a variety of pure tones.

A speech test evaluates your ability to understand the spoken word. Tympanometry tests will reveal any problems in the middle ear, and evaluates the mobility of your eardrum.

These hearing tests are painless. Taken together, the results offer a detailed picture of your hearing, known as an audiogram. And if a problem should be uncovered, your audiogram gives you and your doctor the information needed to move forward.

Eve Glazier, MD., MBA, and Elizabeth Ko, MD., are internists and assistant professors of medicine at UCLA Health.

Ask the Doctors is a syndicated column first published by UExpress syndicate.