Posted on Monday, December 05, 2011

Advances in Hearing Aid Technology

Hearing Health

Hearing aids have advanced dramatically over the years. Today, more than ever, hearing aid users report higher satisfaction with listening technologies. This is due, in part, to better counseling by experienced professionals, but it is also the result of fast moving advances in hearing technology.

Try to imagine the hearing aids of yesteryear— tubes, trumpets, and horns held up to ear canals to amplify sound. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it because here’s a picture courtesy of the On-Line Hearing Aid Museum
Celluloid Ear TrumpetCelluloid Ear Trumpet

To our modern eyes this looks like a busted eardrum waiting to happen. Compare that inauspicious start with the latest hearing aids:
In The CanalIn The Canal
Small BTESmall BTE

Despite what the shadow under the in-the-canal (ITC) hearing aids suggest they don’t actually hover. What the new technology does do is really more impressive.

Early and conventional analog hearing aids simply amplified sound. It seemed like the thing to do, but hearing, our second sense, is multifaceted, so it’s not just a matter of turning up the volume. When we hear the mind adjusts and focuses automatically by tuning out irrelevant sounds and honing in on the essential noise—like someone speaking in a crowded restaurant.

If all sound is amplified then so is the ambient noise.

A vital function of modern hearing aids is directional microphones—which cancel out ambient noise while zeroing in on significant sounds, like speech. This capacity is in some analog hearing aids, but works best when combined with new digital technology. Digital technology is more programmable, allowing the direction of amplification to be both automatic and adaptive—meaning the hearing aid will pick up on where the noise is coming from and focus in on it. Hearing aids with this type of technology can also have the ability to store and learn your preferences, recording them and adjusting automatically when it detects similar noise situations.

Digital hearing aids with their strong storing and adaptive function allow quicker processing and greater clarity.

The wearer can also direct the focus of digital hearing aids. As Dr. Peggy Sheets points out in her Hearing Well newsletter, “If you have someone in the backseat of your car, for example, with the push of a button, the microphones can be switched toward the back to reduce the noise from in front and the side so you can carry on a conversation more easily."

Because directional microphones work best in closer proximity to the speaker, today’s digital hearing aids interact with personal FM systems, Bluetooth technology, and the T-coil; all of which target the speaker in larger rooms-- auditoriums, airports, classrooms, or boardrooms.

Personal FM systems use a microphone worn or placed by the speaker—say in a boardroom or classroom that transmits directly to a receiver that relates the signal to the hearing aid (HA). This means that the subject under discussion is heard without background noise.

FM devices of today are smaller and more manageable than the devices of the past.

Small FM devices, like the Amigo can be of great use, especially to children in the classroom. It has been shown that children with hearing problems do better in class when they can focus in on the teacher. According to one manufacturer, “FM improves the signal-to-noise ratio, eye contact, speech perception and speech recognition.” (Geffner, 2005; ERIC, 2002) In other settings, a T-coil or telecoil works in a similar way, and can also sync with induction loops in public places.

A T-coil or tele coil is a small, tightly-wrapped piece of wire inside 60% of new hearing aids. When activated a T-coil picks up a signal from a field called an induction loop created through a corresponding T-coil.

It’s a misnomer to call the T-coil a “new” technology since it’s been around since the 1940’s. The new part comes with the T-coil’s current uses with advanced technologies. All landlines and many cell phones are designed to interact with T-coils. A T-coil can also act as a Wi-Fi for hearing aids by picking up signals from ipods and televisions through personal loop systems worn either on the person or strung around the home. Feeds of public places wired with a public induction loop system transmit speeches, announcements, and other essential information via the T-coil simply by flipping a switch on the hearing aid (some hearing aids automatically switch to T-coil mode when they sense the magnetic field of an induction loop.)

The T-coil is becoming of greater value as loops become as common around public places in America as they are in Europe. Thanks to the work of two advocates, Janice Schacter and Professor Myers, loops are becoming more common in public places and even taxi cabs in America. The continued expansion of induction loops allows those with hearing issues to have greater freedoms. As Ms. Schacter pointed out, “Access is a human right or a civil right….Induction loops allow the person with hearing loss to be in charge of when they hear.”

Bluetooth technology is the most recent advance in hearing aids. It is a way to send digital information wirelessly. As Megan Sparks of the famed Hearing Sparks blog, said in a recent article, “Bluetooth can seem mysterious, but it’s actually pretty simple – it uses radio frequencies to allow devices to communicate without cables or wiring.”
Bluetooth technology communicates with a device that streams this information to your hearing aid. This device can be synced with things like ipods, televisions, and computers. Despite the initial problems with any new technology, large batteries that are quickly drained, Bluetooth will eventually lead to greater control and freedom for hard of hearing people.

Other new features available in some hearing aids include moisture resistance and wind noise management. Hearing aids have certainly come a long way from the big bulky ones of the past. As progress continues to be made in new technologies and with Let’s Loop America the benefit of new hearing aids in public forums will continue to grow, providing essential freedoms for those with hearing loss. These new advances, digital and otherwise, will make sure hard of hearing people can continue to rely on their second sense when in private or a busy public area.

If you'd like to learn more, see your hearing health provider. If you need help finding a hearing health provider click HERE to be connected with the largest network of trusted hearing health professionals in the nation!

Related Content:

Let’s Loop America!
Science Friday

Ricketts A. Todd (n.d.) Citing Websites. Digital Hearing Aids: Current State of the Art. Retrieved from, http://www.asha.org/public/hearing/treatment/digital_aid.htmr
Schum J. Donald, Beck L. Douglas (n.d.) Citing Websites. Noise Reduction In Advanced Technology Hearing Aids. Retrieved from, http://www.oticonusa.com/Oticon/Professional_Resources/Library/News_From_Oticon_/Noise_Reduction_in_Advanced_Technology_Hearing_Aid.html
Myers David (n.d.) Citing Websites: http://www.hearingloop.org/index.htm

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