June 13, 2008
Daniel Cardwell, an engineer from Summit, N.J., knew he’d been missing out on conversations, business discussions and movie dialogue for a long time. He looked at hearing aids 10 year ago, but they “were big, bulky and beige,” he says. “Plus, I didn’t think they worked very well.”
Bowing to pressure from his family, Cardwell, 60, recently tried again. “This time the digital technology really impressed me,” he says, “and the instruments are small, almost invisible.” Cardwell also had his pick of colors—including ice blue, espresso or gold dust. He chose gray to match his hair.
These are the sleek, chic, powerful hearing aids of the 21st century, designed for the more than 20 million people ages 45 and up who need them. “We discovered that technology could only take us so far in attracting first-time users,” says Gordon Wilson, vice president of marketing for Oticon, a hearing aid manufacturer based in Somerset, N.J. Style is important, too.
One model Wilson’s company makes—a small, triangular device that comes in colors like racing green, Cabernet red and leopard skin—is often mistaken for a high-tech telecommunications device. A teardrop-shaped model made by another company doesn’t even use the name “hearing aid”—it’s a “personal communication assistant.”
But cosmetic changes are only part of the story. “ Sound quality is better. The ability to clarify speech from background noise has improved, thanks to more sophisticated directional microphones. “Noise cancellation” technology has all but erased an annoying feedback whistle. Some models are turning up with rechargeable batteries, and others are water-resistant.
Cardwell—like half of the people buying hearing aids today—chose what’s called a behind-the-ear style with an open fit. The circuitry is housed in a small device that fits behind the ear, while a thin, unobtrusive tube goes into a receiver in the ear canal. It’s popular because people “don’t feel plugged up, plus they can use their residual hearing,” says Allen Senne, director of audiology at the House Clinic, a medical center in Los Angeles.
Devices that sit in the outer part of the ear or in the canal are also getting upgraded. “Technology is looking at the entire spectrum,” says Thomas Powers, vice president of audiology and professional relations at Siemens Hearing Instruments in Piscataway, N.J.
The newest type of hearing device is one that’s inserted deep into the ear canal, close to the ear drum, by a hearing professional—without surgery or anesthesia. Lyric, recently introduced by InSound Medical of Newark, Calif., is entirely hidden and can be worn around the clock for up to 120 days.
Consumers don’t buy Lyric—instead they buy a subscription that costs between $1,450 and $1,850 a year for each ear. When the battery runs down, Lyric is removed with a small magnet, and replaced with the latest version. At the end of the year, the patient can choose to resubscribe or switch to another type of hearing aid.
More than 90 percent of all hearing aids now sold are digital. That’s because older, analog technology works like a bullhorn, making all incoming sounds louder. With digital technology, a computer chip inside the device is constantly making adjustments to incoming sound, allowing for more flexibility. “Hearing aids have become little hard drives,” says Sergei Kochkin, executive director of the nonprofit Better Hearing Institute (BHI) in Wasington, D.C.
Some new aids even learn from experience. The computer chip records data, such as the wearer’s volume preference in different listening environments, and automatically adjusts the next time the same environment is encountered. Wearers can also make adjustments manually using a remote.
And, for the 80 percent of users who wear two hearing aids, wireless technology allows the instruments to “talk” to each other. A wearer, for example, only has to change the volume on one device; the other gets the message and adapts.
All this new technology isn’t cheap. Analog aids range from $900 to $1,200. A basic digital model starts at about $1,300, and one with new bells and whistles may run about $3,500. Since most people need two aids, a top-of-the-line set can cost almost $7,000. Some models also come with optional accessories, ranging from $175 to $2,000, that connect the hearing aids to cellphones and GPS systems.
Yet it’s the cost that keeps two-thirds of the people who need hearing aids from getting them, according to a national BHI study released in 2007. Medicare doesn’t cover hearing aids, nor do most Medicaid programs or private health plans. Financial help is offered to those who qualify by some states, nonprofits and community groups like the Lions, Kiwanis and Rotary clubs. And a federal Hearing Aid Assistance Tax Credit bill has been introduced in the House, calling for a tax credit of up to $500 per hearing aid once every five years.
Experts advise talking to a hearing care professional before getting your heart set on one particular model. “You may not need a high-end device,” Kochkin says. “Or you may need a really strong hearing aid.” The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the American Academy of Audiology offer information on finding hearing care.
“If people have tried hearing aids in the past and have been unsuccessful, I would encourage them to try again,” says Senne. “It’s a whole new world.”
Daniel Cardwell would agree. “The change in my life has been phenomenal,” he says.
Source: AARP Bulletin