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December 2, 2002

Listen up: UT researchers seek dissatisfied hearing aid users

From: Knoxville News Sentinel, TN - 2 Dec 2002

Listen up: UT researchers seek dissatisfied hearing aid users

By Kristi L. Nelson, News-Sentinel staff writer
December 2, 2002

Wanna talk about why you're not wearing that hearing aid? Two researchers at the University of Tennessee are listening.

Hearing scientist Anna Nabelek and audiologist Sam Burchfield are looking for people who have been fitted with hearing aids but don't wear them. They'll talk to them for a study, sponsored by the National Institute on Deafness and Communicative Disorders, on different tolerance levels for background noise.

"There's some people who wear hearing aids absolutely fine," Burchfield said. "They do very well. There's another group of people, though, who just seem to have inordinate difficulty with hearing aids."

Of the estimated 25 million to 30 million Americans who have hearing problems, Burchfield said, 5 million to 8 million use hearing aids, and only about half of them are satisfied with their hearing aids. Several hundred thousand more may buy hearing aids and either return them or toss them in a drawer. Still others may need hearing aids but don't even try to get fitted because they have negative opinions about hearing aids formed from the bad experiences of a friend and family member.

While previous studies showed who would benefit from a hearing aid, none showed why some people quit wearing them.

"That bothered us because a lot of these people can be helped," Nabelek said.

So Nabelek looked at it from another angle: Maybe how well people continued to wear hearing aids depended on how much background noise they were able to tolerate, rather than on how much background noise was actually getting through.

All people who wear hearing aids have to contend with some background noise, she said, but maybe their expectations for background noise are different.

"Nobody ever tried to quantify how much noise is too much," she said. "We started to quantify how much noise people were willing to except."

Nabelek did several studies in the late 1980s and '90s and then retired before returning to write a three-year NIH grant for $450,000 plus UT overhead (about another $300,000).

It used procedures refined from her 1991 study.

"We never asked them if they were satisfied or not because that's elusive and difficult to quantify," she said. "So we asked if they use their hearing aids as much as they need them."

A little more than a year into the study, Nabelek, Burchfield and the two graduate students involved are fairly certain tolerance of background noise relates to how well a person complies with wearing a hearing aid.

If they can use that information ahead of time to identify people who have low tolerance for background noise, they could possibly start those people out in hearing aids with directional microphones. These aids decrease background noise but are much more expensive. Often, the researchers said, people who think they can't be helped by hearing aids just haven't tried the newer technology.

Or, possibly, people who are extensively bothered by background noise could be trained over time to better accept it.

The researchers are also interested in learning what determines a person's tolerance for background noise. In testing subjects from ages 8 to 75, they've been unable to relate it to age, gender or hearing loss. Nor has the type of noise a person likes seemed to make a difference.

This study is the first step; it will hopefully help researchers predict which people will have problems wearing hearing aids. Yet the scientists have tested only 70 of the 250 people they hope to test.

The testing takes a little more than an hour, and volunteers will be paid $20.

For information, call 974-1787.

Kristi L. Nelson can be reached at 865-342-6434 or

Copyright 2002, Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.