Guilty. Climbing into a huge sound speaker cabinet at a Ted Nugent outdoor concert in 1973 was a crime against humanity. My humanity. It certainly ranks in the Top 10 stupidest things I’ve ever done.

Count me amongst the millions of Baby Boomers and older people who would experience hearing loss as a natural part of aging in an industrialized country where environmental “noise pollution” keeps rising. Add the fact I have a family history of premature hearing loss. Then throw in hundreds of rock concerts over nearly 30-plus years, and not using ear protection until long after the lasting damage was done. That was confirmed by an audiologist—a professional trained in diagnosing, treating and managing hearing loss or balance problems, according to the American Academy of Audiology (AAO).

So, what stops me from taking the next step and getting hearing aids? Cost is a consideration. Then there are the people who told you about problems they experienced with the devices, especially the over-amplification of too much sound. But what I call the “vanity barrier” trumps all. Whenever I remind myself that practicality is more important than appearances, I see someone my age with a hearing aid and cannot help reacting with “Boy, he’s older than I thought!”

Taking a second look at this topic for Aging Well, I discovered that close to 30 million Americans has significant hearing loss, according to the AAO and other sources. Get this: More than half of those are under age 60. More Boomers have hearing loss than Americans over age 65.
I asked Dr. Michael Hill, a licensed audiologist, what can motivate people to get their hearing tested. He says the effects of bad hearing are well documented: negative moods, stress, depression, withdrawal from social situations, loneliness. Impaired hearing can be a safety risk (you didn’t hear that avalanche behind you on that Swiss ski slope!) and can hamper your career or earning power.

“Many middle aged Boomers are afraid to see their doctors for a variety of reasons,” he observes. “But learning you have progressive hearing loss isn’t like a diagnosis of diabetes or cancer.”

Dr. Hill draws the parallel between eyeglasses and hearing aids, noting there’s no age or vanity stigma attached to glasses. “People will wear inserts for their iPods, noise-blocker head sets or Bluetooth ear pieces for their cell phones and think nothing of it,” he remarks. “Yet a fair number of today’s highly sophisticated hearing aids are much more discreet than these. Hearing loss is much more noticeable than the hearing aids of today.”

Some people may be wary of seeing audiologists, assuming they’re just in the business of selling the most expensive hearing aids. Dr. Hill points out that audiologists have at least master’s degrees in the specialty and many, like him, have doctorates. Their practices are based on hearing diagnostics, consultation — including how to cope effectively with some hearing loss without aids — and the monitoring of progressive hearing loss. Licensed audiologists have a strict set of ethical standards, are governed by state laws and are required to obtain continuing education each year.

It then occurs to me: Millions of Americans have their vision tested by optometrists who sell eyeglasses and contact lenses. Folks who buy cheap magnifying eyeglasses at pharmacies (I call mine my “shaving glasses”) don’t expect perfectly corrected vision. Yet others buy cheap hearing aids directly from mail order and internet vendors, without any professional evaluation, then complain about how hearing aids are worthless. “Those are the aids that end up in the bottom of dresser drawers,” Dr. Hill responds when I bring that up.

Hearing aids are getting “smaller and smarter.” The miniaturization that puts thousands of songs on an iPod can make a device that is barely noticeable, if at all, yet much more effective.

The more advanced aids go way beyond simple amplification, reducing or eliminating common complaints of the past, from “whistling” and feedback to those echo or tunnel effects, as if you were hearing everything inside a well or metal barrel.
The latest-generation of hearing aid technology includes these buzzwords:

Digitally programmable. From a loud ballgame to a low-key conversation in a restaurant with background noise, the user can switch programs to adapt to the sound circumstances, with a button or even a small remote control.

Compression circuitry. Amplifies soft sounds but not loud sounds.

Multi-channel or multi-band. Adjusts for different sound frequencies, customized to the individual user’s hearing.

Directional and multiple microphones. Amplify sound to the front and soften sound from the rear, and annoying background noise is minimized.
Digital aids. Hearing aids that convert sounds to digital data, manipulate it with computerized algorithms, then convert it back to analog sound waves in the ear, all in a flash. Introduced about six years ago, these units are expensive, but superior in reducing sound distortion.

If you’re curious or concerned enough about hearing loss to investigate, how do you go about choosing an audiologist? Ask people who are happy with their hearing aids. Seek referrals from your physician. (My ear-nose-throat doctor has an audiologist in his office.) Screen audiologists on the phone before making a consultation appointment.

Keep and compare brief notes of each one’s testing procedures, the diagnostic equipment used, and the manufacturer names and price range of hearing aids each audiologist recommends. The best aid is not always the most expensive one.

“Acceptance of hearing aid use is gaining momentum surely, but slowly,” Dr. Hill observes. “Baby boomers, unlike older generations, are less tolerable of things that impair their ability to go about their daily lives and are more prone to do something about it.'

“And remember: Hearing loss is not only a problem for you, but also for family, friends and others who communicate with you.”