How Reliable Are Over-the-Phone Hearing Tests?

Health Writer

Do you suspect you might have trouble hearing but haven’t gotten around to getting your ears tested? Maybe it’s because you’re afraid that someone will try to sell you an expensive hearing aid. If so, here’s some good news.

There’s a quick and reliable test you can take from your home phone for $5. And the results are not shared with hearing aid manufacturers.

Called The National Hearing Test, it was developed by hearing scientists with funding from the National Institutes of Health. Though the test only recently made its debut in the U.S., versions have been used for years in countries such as Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Switzerland.

The American version is based on the Dutch test and was developed by researchers associated with Indiana University and Indiana-based Communication Disorders Technology (a software development company).

How to take the test

Standard hearing tests, administered by audiologists, involve wearing headphones that play a variety of sounds, including hums, buzzing, and beeps. In contrast, the National Hearing Test is given over your home telephone.

You can start by logging onto the National Hearing Test website ( AARP members can take the test for free; if you are not a member, you’ll have to pay a $5 fee.

You will be given a phone number to call and a 10-digit access code. After you enter the code, you will be instructed to listen to a series of three-digit numbers presented against background noise. You then enter those digits on your telephone keypad. The test takes about 10 minutes.

For best results, find a quiet location — ideally one that has a landline with a wall-mounted jack and corded handset (they have better sound quality than cell phones). If you do not have access to a phone with a corded receiver, be sure your phone is providing clearly audible sound that is free of distortion or noise.

What happens next

Once you’ve completed the test, a recorded voice immediately gives you the results for each ear: as within normal limits, slightly below normal, or substantially below normal. If your hearing falls into the two latter categories, you’re advised to consult a hearing professional.

The test was validated by a study done at Veterans Affairs centers and published in the Journal of the American Academy of Audiology in 2014. It found that the results correlated well with gold-standard hearing tests.

About 80 percent of people who take the test are found to have below-normal hearing and are advised to seek professional assessment. That’s not surprising, because those who take the test usually suspect they have hearing problems.

Unlike most other “free” hearing tests the results are entirely private, says Charles Watson, Ph.D., principal investigator for the National Hearing Test. “That is, the results are given to you at the end of the test, and to no one else, particularly anyone who would attempt to sell you hearing aids.”

Why take it?

“This test is very good at picking up what’s called ‘sensorineural hearing loss,’ ” Watson says, which is caused by problems with the inner ear, and accounts for more than 95 percent of age-related hearing loss. Virtually everyone loses hearing sensitivity as they age; by the age of 75, about half of the population has clinically significant hearing loss.

Unfortunately, most people suffer in silence. According to the American Speech Language Hearing Association, only 20 percent of people who might benefit from treatment seek help for hearing loss.

That is a shame, because in addition to damaging a person’s quality of life, hearing loss has been linked to mental decline and dementia as well as social isolation and depression.

Since you have nothing to lose and possibly much to gain, Watson recommends taking the test if you think your hearing isn’t what it used to be. He added that if you are already certain you have a hearing problem, skip the test and visit an audiologist.

What to do with the results

If the test shows that you are losing hearing in one or both ears, make an appointment to see an audiologist or a doctor specializing in hearing. If you are advised to purchase a hearing aid, be sure that you are given a trial period of at least a month and preferably longer, during which you can return the aid for a full refund if you are convinced it is not helping you.

Berkeley Wellness contributed to this report.

See more helpful articles:

Less Expensive Hearing Devices May Help Some People, Study Says

A Smarter Way to Shop for a Hearing Aid