Hearing Aids Turn High-Tech

When Dennis Risen, 71, was in his early 30s, he noticed he was having difficulty following conversations with friends in group settings. “If the speaker changed from one (person) to the next, I was always behind because I was using a little lip reading to listen to them. It was affecting me socially, and I wanted to be able to continue to talk to people.”

Risen, an information technology engineer from Evanston, saw an audiologist who fitted him for his first hearing aids and has worn multiple styles over the years. But not everyone who experiences hearing loss is proactive about seeking treatment. According to the National Institute on Aging, one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 has hearing loss, and nearly half of people 75 and older experience it, too.

Yet, less than 30% of people over age 70 who need hearing aids have used them, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. And for people age 20 to 69, that number is even lower: Only 16% of those who could benefit from hearing aids have ever used them.

The price of hearing aids is a barrier for many people, with costs typically ranging between $500 and $6,000 per pair. Original Medicare doesn’t cover hearing aids and exams, so people with Original Medicare have to pay for all costs, although some Medicare Advantage plans cover hearing care.

When meeting with patients, Janet Han, AuD, a clinical audiologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem, says she gauges each person’s hearing level as well as their motivation to find a solution that works for them. She asks them, “How frustrated are you on a day-to-day basis, and how motivated are you to do something different about it or try something [new] to help that situation?”

While the process of finding the right device can feel like trial and error, new technology is producing a wide range of options with high-tech features that offer hope — and increased clarity — for those with hearing loss.

High-tech hearing

New advances in hearing aid technology can do much more than simply amplify sound. They can work with Bluetooth technology so phone calls can be taken directly in your hearing aids, and they can be optimized to reduce background noise.

Many hearing aids also use integrated apps to enhance the clarity of speech for their users. Some hearing aids can detect if the wearer falls and will alert caregivers. Others count the wearer’s steps or translate foreign languages.

Across the board, technological advancements have made for a better experience, says Karen Glay, AuD, owner of Suburban Hearing Services.

Bluetooth capability has also changed hearing aid performance, Glay says, enabling wearers to stream audio from a TV, tablet, or phone directly into their hearing aid. “It’s amazing to me when I have a 93-year-old patient who tells me she’s streaming [the movie] Sound of Metal from her iPad. I’m like, okay, anybody can do this.”

Yet, many people remain hesitant, Glay says. “For a lot of people, they feel, ‘That’s going to be too much for me to handle.’”

In reality, she says, the latest technology makes the hearing aids more automatic. People “don’t have to do as much.”

Additional advancements include sophisticated sound processors that perform analysis on the wearer’s environment to determine which noises to amplify at any given time. Wireless ear-to-ear connectivity makes this increased sound processing possible.

Many over-the-counter hearing devices, or personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), also use wireless signals to communicate with each other but cannot do anything more than amplify sound.

Marie Vetter, AuD, owner of Chicago Hearing Services, has referred patients with mild-to-moderate hearing loss to products like Apple Airpods for assistance when they want to hear media better in their ear amid background noise.

But for patients with more severe hearing loss, “Help is not as easy as just turning on a widget,” she says of over-the-counter devices. It’s important to work with a professional to find the right hearing assistive device, guide the wearer through the technology, and get a proper fit, she says.

A better experience

Better tech has also simplified patient interactions. During virtual telehealth visits, Glay uses remote programming capabilities to make updates to a person’s hearing aids from her office in real time. As for future technology, she’d love hearing aids that could perform diagnostic tests on themselves, but, she says with a chuckle, “Wax will never stop being our problem.”

Due in part to the popularity of over-the-counter devices, the Food and Drug Administration is considering guidance that would allow for over-the-counter hearing aids, which would potentially drive down prices and increase access. However, the pandemic has delayed the ruling, originally expected in 2020.

Over-the-counter hearing aids would assist a greater number of people to get help earlier, Vetter says, but the products need to be coupled with assistance from a professional in order to be effective.

Carly Girard, AuD, owner and president of Hearing Associates, agrees that patients should find a provider they trust to guide them through the technology. “It’s not as easy as picking up a Consumer Reports magazine and saying, ‘Oh, look, this is the top-rated device,’ because without the proper fit, a top-rated device won’t perform at the highest level,” she says.

Risen says he feels fortunate that the technology has kept up with his needs as his hearing loss increased with age. He can follow the speaker in small group conversations, hear what his wife is saying across their home, and talk on the phone. Without his hearing aids, he says, “I would essentially be shut out.”