Hearing Aids Riding the Technology Wave

Stefan Harris, a hearing aids specialist in Anchorage, says advances in the past several years have made the devices better, more convenient, and cheaper.

Advancements in technology can bring wonders to our daily lives but also leave many of us totally confused.

From smartphones to tablets and laptops and even TVs, the choices are endless and the tech jargon is a foreign language to most of us. OK, yes, we know what it means but do we really know how to apply the numbers? Gigs, RAM, pixels — say what?

It is no different for hearing aids. In the past several years at our practice in Anchorage, we’ve watched as the explosive advances in computer miniaturization have allowed for increased performance to reach our ears.

When I first entered this field more than 20 years ago, it was a pretty simple process. Hearing aids were analog; think of the 8-track player in your dad’s Mustang (yes, it was that long ago). With a little screwdriver, adjustments to the high pitches and low pitches could be rolled off for patient comfort, but that’s about it. Another analogy would be that it was pretty similar to a rack of reading glasses at the drug store.

The only problem was that hearing loss affects people in different ways, and no one person has the same hearing loss as another. These aids basically amplified everything, but it was the only way the industry could build them at the time.

Having been born with a severe hearing loss and wearing devices all my life, I was grateful for my hearing aids. They sure were better than nothing, but boy did the hearing aids of that time need an overhaul!

Recent Advances

Fast-forward to 2016, and it’s beyond ridiculous the improvements in this field, just as in any product with a computer chip. Today’s devices focus on clarity, not just cranking up the volume.

It’s easy to get confused by all the options that are available. The good news is that almost all hearing losses can be treated today with success thanks to the different levels of digital technology. Even better news is that tech that was only in the most expensive devices 5 years ago is now in the mid-level and even entry-level devices.

What tech and how does it help, might you ask? The technology allows for you to set and forget it, so to speak. No need to adjust volume or press buttons, and with some devices, there’s no fussing with the batteries.

Everything is automatically adjusted for you, based on your hearing loss and the environment you are in. Plus if your hearing changes over the years, the devices are just reprogrammed. Now that’s what I call a game-changer!

Which Option Is Best?

So what’s with all the different prices if they are automatic and set to the hearing loss? Ah, the $64,000 question (that’s more than $533,000 today). Much depends on the actual hearing loss itself. The hearing test will show the degree and slope of the loss, and that determines, for the most part, what devices would work best.

Going back to your dad’s or mom’s Mustang, you might remember under the cassette player (upgraded from 8-track, I hope) there was an equalizer; it had little levers and bass, and mids and high pitches could be adjusted. Well, in a nutshell that is how hearing devices are programmed to hearing losses via a computer.

Hearing is tested in different frequencies or pitches, usually 8 to 10 different spots from low pitches to high. That graph, called an audiogram, plots the hearing loss and determines, along with speech testing, options that are best suited for that loss.

Some hearing devices have only 4 to 6 “levers” on the equalizer, so if the hearing loss has a steep slope, it probably won’t be a good solution. Think of putting on a set of glasses that are not your prescription — pretty fuzzy right? Well, I’m sure you wouldn’t want to hear that way either. If the hearing loss was pretty flat, even along all the pitches, then that device would work well. In general, the higher the degree of the slope of the hearing loss, the more “levers” we want so we can best fine-tune the devices to that loss.

The other factor in all of this is the lifestyle of the device user. Even though digital devices are automatic, some are more advanced than others in how they function in different environments. For example, most devices have 2 microphones that adjust for speech and noise in different environments automatically. However, some can zoom in to a specific area, adjust with data from the opposite ear’s device, and stay in a surround-sound mode when needed.

Some devices use Bluetooth, so phone calls and music can be played right into the devices in the ears, others play soothing tones for tinnitus (ringing of the ears), and there are devices that are even waterproof.

Does everyone need all these bells and whistles? Of course not. The beauty of today’s technology is there’s an answer for almost every hearing loss that doesn’t break the bank. Yes, these are an investment, but they are an investment in you and your quality of life. And remember, on average most wear their devices 5 to 7 years. Plus, check your health insurance, because many have a hearing device benefit.

Better yet, schedule a hearing test, and if you are a candidate for hearing devices, we can send you home with a demo set, no charge (just bring them back, of course) for a week, so you can kick the tires and hear for yourself how better hearing equals a better life!

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Each of our physicians is board-certified in Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery, and Dr. Ellerbe is board-certified in Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

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