Have You Heard The News?

Technology and design have made the once clunky hearing aid a sleek accessory

By Jack Kapica

I was road-testing my first hearing aid when I found myself at a large party, mortified by an irrational suspicion that everyone there was staring at it. Moments later, I was introduced to a young woman, perhaps 20 and heartbreakingly pretty. As she turned her head, I noticed she too was wearing hearing aids. Big ones. Behind each ear. And she was making no effort to hide them.

Well, I thought, if hearing aids weren’t bothering a girl this pretty, I had no excuse.

Our culture is vaguely embarrassed by hearing aids, perhaps because we fear looking or feeling old, or we tend to regard hearing loss as a failure of character. Most of us remember resenting grandmother’s hearing aid, bulky and not very effective, when it squealed at awkward moments.

We think hearing aids broadcast our impending decrepitude, but professionals point out that’s just not true — the Better Hearing Institute in the U.S. reports that 65 per cent of those with hearing loss are younger than 65. Moreover, poor hearing is harder on other people, of any age, who become stressed by having to adapt to it.

“Hearing aids,” says Toronto audiologist Tracey Gale, “are less visible than hearing loss.”

Sony unwittingly helped rehabilitate the hearing aid when in the 1980s it popularized the Walkman, making big ear buds sexy. Today, cellphone users proudly wear enormous Bluetooth headsets. This cultural shift to visible headgear ­— hearing-aid maker Kevin Semcken of Able Planet calls it “the new bling” — is being exploited by audiologists who want to destigmatize hearing loss. Last year, the Canadian division of electronics giant Siemens Hearing Instruments introduced a line of fashion hearing aids called Life, designed to be seen as fashion statements. They come in 16 colours, including Berry Charming, Fresh and Suave.

These efforts to pimp the hearing aid coincide with baby boomers reaching their age-related hearing-loss years, as well as with younger people needing them earlier, some suffering damage from loud iPods.

In the 1990s, technology introduced digital signal processing chips, now in their seventh generation, which allow audiologists to modulate sound to compensate for an individual’s failing frequencies. “Fuzzy logic,” a system of reconciling ambiguities so the sound output is constantly optimized to every environment, can “learn” how to adjust to surroundings. The new devices can deliver sound in as many as 32 channels (earlier products offered seven or eight). Microphones can suppress background noises and track sound as it moves from side to side.

Analogue hearing aids filled the ear canal and forced the wearer to hear only what the device offered, which was often tinny and annoying. The real breakthrough came when digitization allowed the creation of anti-feedback technology. That allowed the creation of the “open-fit” design, in which sound from a hearing aid behind the ear is sent through a tiny plastic tube suspended in the ear canal, like an axle in a wagon wheel. The sound still flows around it into the ear, but the hearing aid enhances it by boosting deficient frequencies. The next step has been to move the receiver from behind the ear into the tube in the ear canal itself, placing it close to the eardrum. Another new technology allows dual hearing aids to be synchronized, balancing volume for an even more natural sound.

The cutting edge is Bluetooth, the wireless technology used mostly in cellphones. A number of high-end hearing aids now include it, allowing users to talk on cellphones and listen to MP3 players or home-theatre systems without having to crank up the volume.

The immediate future includes multiple microphones to enhance the sense of where sounds are coming from, as well as a new technology called the Cetera Algorithm, a complex mathematical formula that can match the exact characteristics of the wearer’s ear, giving sound greater depth and character.

For Semcken, Able Planet’s chairman and CEO, the future will involve his company’s Linx Audio technology. It creates harmonic sounds in higher frequencies, the first area where hearing fails, resulting in a crisper sound. Able Planet currently makes headphones and headsets for hearing-impaired computer gamers and hopes to launch a line of audiology assisted living devices. Semcken is also negotiating with cellphone manufacturers to embed Linx in their products, claiming it can improve sound quality by 30 to 40 per cent.

Developers are talking about merging cellphones with hearing aids into a hands-free communications device, perhaps even incorporating language-translation software. Also on the drawing board is software that could be custom-tuned to a significant other’s voice.

Hearing aids like these will not only help you in social gatherings but also improve health, says Dr. Thomas Powers, Siemens’ vice-president for compliance and training .

“When hearing improves, overall health improves, including blood pressure and cholesterol levels because the social environment improves. Otherwise, people with hearing loss will tend to retreat from social situations.”

With promises like these, the most dramatic development in future hearing aids will be the loss of any excuse not to wear them.