Nearly 30 million Americans could benefit from using a hearing aid, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (MNIDCD). But a small percentage of people with hearing loss actually use one — under 30 percent of those ages 70 and older and only 16 percent of those ages 20 to 69.
Many may not be aware of how much they’ve improved in the past decade, says Laurel Christensen, chief audiology officer at GN Hearing, a hearing device manufacturer. “Hearing aids over the last 10 years have undergone a big change … and have really started to meet the needs of people with hearing impairment far better.”
Here are some of the most exciting advances in hearing aid technology.
Rechargeable hearing aids
A common problem for users of hearing aids is changing the tiny batteries that keep them running. “Many older people do not have great manual dexterity,” says Christensen. But now you can buy rechargeable hearing aids: “You charge it at night the same way you do your phone, and get a full day of hearing aid life the next day,” she says. The typical charge lasts 30 hours.
Another benefit to the rechargeables: “You no longer have to worry about the battery beeping when you’re in church or a restaurant,” says Eryn Staats, an audiologist and audiology manager at the Ohio State University (OSU) Wexner Medical Center.
Some of the latest hearing aids are able to connect wirelessly to both Android and iPhone devices, which brings a whole host of benefits. For one, the wearer is better able to hear while talking on the phone. “One of the biggest losses for people with impaired hearing is the ability to use the phone,” says Staats. Not being able to see the speaker and read lips cuts down on understanding. With smartphone connectivity, the clarity improves.
Another benefit to wireless connectivity: Users can download an app that allows them to adjust the hearing aid to different circumstances. (Different hearing aid companies have their own apps that perform in similar ways.) If you’re in a loud restaurant, for example, you can tell the hearing aid where you are and it will automatically adjust to block out background noise and make it easier for you to hear the conversation at your table. (Background noise is the biggest problem for people with hearing loss.)
“Patients can make changes to improve their hearing performance in real life and in real time,” says Aaron Moberly, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of neurotology at the OSU Wexner Medical Center. Bonus: You don’t have to touch your hearing aid to adjust it.
The technology also allows sound to be streamed from TVs and other devices to a hearing aid. “It’s a much more direct connection, and the fidelity of the signal coming in is also much better,” says Moberly.
This 3D app from GN Hearing allows hearing aid users to communicate with their hearing care professional and receive an adjustment without an office visit. You send a description of the problem, the hearing professional sends fine-tuned adjustments to the app, and you place the hearing aid close to your phone and tap to install. “This is especially helpful for people who have a distance to travel for in-person appointments,” says Kate Carr, president of Hearing Industries of America, the national trade association for hearing device manufacturers.
Own Voice Processing
Many people who wear hearing aids complain about the sound of their own voice. Sometimes this is because of occlusion, an increase in the loudness of the user’s voice when the ear canal is blocked by a hearing aid. Other times the hearing aid can create an unnatural perception of a person’s voice. Both problems are important to address because patients may avoid wearing a hearing aid if they don’t like the sound of their own voice.
New technology from Signia, called Own Voice Processing (OVP), can help, according to research conducted in the audiology clinic at the University of Northern Colorado. A hearing aid that has this technology is able to detect the wearer’s voice and process it separately from external sounds, which are unaffected.
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Health and wellness monitors
Long before there were wristbands and watches to monitor heart rate and steps taken, there were the original health wearables: hearing aids. Some new models can monitor physical activity as well as vital signs like body temperature and blood pressure.
Some even gauge your connection to other people by detecting when you are speaking to someone else. The upside: Many studies have shown that loneliness raises the risk for cardiovascular disease, depression, and other physical and mental health problems. “This is a way for health care professionals and family members to monitor how much the person is interacting with other people,” Carr says.
People with hearing loss have a 300 percent increased risk of falling, says Tom Wiffler, CEO of UnitedHealthcare Specialty Benefits. “Now there are hearing aids that can detect and chirp when a fall is about to happen,” he says. The technology — found in the Livio AI device, made by Starkey — can’t stop someone from falling, but it can automatically notify up to three emergency contacts to alert them that a fall has occurred and pinpoint where the person is.
The Livio AI also offers translation in 27 languages, including French, Japanese, and Arabic. As someone is speaking, the device translates into English in real time.
Cochlear implant communication
Since the 1980s, it’s been possible to surgically implant a device to provide a sense of sound for people with moderate to profound hearing loss. Many people who have cochlear implants also wear hearing aids, and trying to get the devices to work together has been a challenge for scientists and medical professionals. “Now there are partnerships between hearing aid companies and implant companies to make the process smoother,” says Moberly.
They’re not hearing aids, exactly, but they can improve hearing for people with mild hearing loss. That’s because these earbuds have a noise-canceling feature that enhances hearing in loud places while drowning out background noise. A hearing care professional, such as an audiologist, can help you find the right hearing device for your level of hearing loss and your needs.