Update - The newsletter for the University of Memphis

February 2010 Briefs

Bygone Days, The 1940s had its share of ups and downs with celebrity visit, WW II. Read more

Brain Drain? Healthy lunch habits can mean a more productive day at the office. Read more

Ring Container Technologies Inc. has made a $300,000 gift to establish the Ring Companies Professorship Fund in the Herff College of Engineering at the U of M. The Professorships will allow the Herff College to retain highcaliber faculty.

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Audiology professor offers views on hearing loss problems

Dr. Robyn Cox, U of M professor of audiology, offers some thoughts on her field and the lack of “starter” hearing aid devices available for the general public at drug stores. She said the FDA has recently been considering the over-the-counter hearing aid issue. Cox received the Willard R. Sparks Eminent Faculty Award last spring, the highest honor bestowed on a faculty member at the University of Memphis. She is director of the U of M’s Hearing Aid Research Laboratory.

Dr. Cox, can you tell me exactly what the field of audiology is?

Audiology has a mission to help people cope with the problems that result from hearing impairment.

Can you give us a history of audiology?

Dr. Robyn Cox
Dr. Robyn Cox
The field of audiology is relatively new. It was established shortly after the end of World War II and is thus about the same age as me. It is accurate to think of audiology as a younger sibling of optometry. Both professions address quality of life issues. Optometry deals with vision problems and audiology deals with hearing problems. Years from now, optometry and audiology will operate as parallel professions, but audiology has quite a long way to go to reach that point.

Who benefits from audiology?

Our patients range from babies to very old people, and their problems cover the gamut of occasional slight hearing difficulty to complete deafness. My own interest is with individuals who have acquired hearing problems as mature adults, those 50 years old or older.

What are ways we can cope with hearing loss?

I bet you are well aware that, for most people, problems with close-up vision begin in your 40s. But did you notice that the same kind of thing was true of your hearing? If you are like me, when you were in your 40s or 50s, you began to notice that it was getting a bit harder to have a conversation in a noisy place. This happens to all of us and it is as normal as developing a need for reading glasses. Most of us recognize that need and get ourselves our first reading glasses pretty quickly, usually from Walgreens or a similar place. But we have more difficulty recognizing our hearing problems and especially knowing what to do about them. For this reason, adults who develop hearing problems typically wait about 10 years before they seek help. This is a bad idea because you lose listening skills during that period and it is hard to get them back.

If you start to notice hearing problems, what can you do?

There are actually two kinds of treatments available. One treatment involves learning communication skills and strategies to maximize your ability to use the hearing you do have. This type of treatment is fairly new, but is becoming more available and can be quite useful. The other treatment is to purchase hearing aids. I know that hearing aids tend to have a bad reputation and this used to be deserved, but it is mostly unfounded now. The development of “digital everything” has allowed tremendous improvements in appearance and function of hearing aids, but often folks are not sure that their hearing has really become bad enough to justify the time and expense of prescription hearing aids. So the ideal thing would be this: When you begin to notice that you are developing hearing problems, don’t wait.

Can you buy a hearing aid much like you can reading glasses at drug stores?

Actually, you cannot buy a starter hearing aid in drug stores and there is really no good reason for this. The FDA must give approval to sell hearing aids this way, and this approval has been blocked for reasons that, in my opinion, probably are not in the best interests of the public. The fact is that the technology exists to put quite sophisticated starter hearing aids in places like drug stores – a similar concept to the reading glasses you can get there. These devices could serve the public good by providing an accessible introduction to state-of-the-art amplified sound, and they would be no more dangerous to the public than many other things sold in drug stores. In the meantime, many hearing aids are being illegally marketed over the counter or online simply by not calling them what they are. There is even an iPhone App that is basically a hearing aid. You’ve seen those advertisements — they claim to sell aids for hunting, bird watching or eavesdropping. The ones I have read about are incredibly primitive by comparison with what could be available to help folks.

So here’s my message: It is time for high-technology, legal, over-the-counter, introductory hearing aids. It can be done very well right now. But the impetus for this change must come from consumer demand. I hope you will work with me on this. Let’s all encourage the FDA to approve over-the-counter introductory hearing aids in this country instead of waiting another 10 years.

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