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Newest Hearing Aids: Better Sound, More Discreet

Today's hearing aids don't look or sound like grandma's

By Marilynn Larkin | May 24, 2012
Wi Series RIC 13 - hearing aid
Wi Series RIC 13 - Small, discreet, and quick to fit. Perfect for many first-time wearers.

Although an estimated 26.7 million Americans age 50 and older have hearing loss, only about 1 in 7 (14 percent) uses a hearing aid, according to a study published in the Feb. 13 online issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.
 
“There certainly is a stigma associated with wearing hearing aids,” says Jerry Ruzicka, president of Starkey Hearing Technologies. “People think of them as grandma's hearing aids — big, unsophisticated devices that just made things louder — and associate them with getting old.”

Those are big disincentives to following through and actually buying the devices, even in the face of impaired hearing.
 
Located in St. Louis Park, Minn., Starkey Technologies recently held a conference for hearing professionals that included a look at the latest hearing-aid technologies. “The hearing aid industry has focused on making the devices very small and very discreet for the wearer,” Ruzicka says. “The brutal fact is that the people who most enjoy their hearing aids are the those who can’t see them. There's actually a category called 'invisible in the canal' that is like a contact lens for your ear. It lies deeply in the ear canal and is completely out of sight.”
 
Vital for Work and Social Life
 
With today's lifestyles, there are more reasons to overcome resistance to hearing aids, says Mary Furlong of Mary Furlong & Associates, a San Francisco-based public relations firm that specializes in boomer-oriented clients and products. “People are staying in the workforce longer, and that may mean coloring their hair to look younger or, if they have hearing loss, making sure they have the adaptive technology that can enable them to continue earning a living.” For example, being unable to hear clearly what’s being said in meetings, on the phone or around the water cooler may compromise someone’s ability to function effectively in an office.
 
Because boomers date and have relationships, they want hearing aids that are both functional and discreet. “This generation is dating in record numbers — about 1 in 3 are in new relationships,” Furlong says. “It’s important to hear what that other person is saying, and not miss anything. And because people want to feel good and look attractive when they’re dating, a hearing aid has to be both aesthetic and functional.”
 
The new hearing aids provide better clarity and volume, Ruzicka says. “People who wear hearing aids need to have a good signal-to-noise ratio — that is, the sound they’re listening to has to be as pure as possible.” To that end, many new products include a wireless capability that eliminates the echo that often gets in the way of clear, accurate hearing. Echoes are caused by voices and sounds reflecting off objects in a room. By plugging a small accessory into a TV, phone and/or sound system, the person wearing the hearing aid receives a wireless transmission of the audio signal directly from the device that’s emitting it.  
 
Cost and Other Issues
 
Ruzicka concedes that a barrier to getting a hearing aid of any type can be its price. “Costs are high because the market is so small, and there’s minimal — if any — insurance coverage,” Ruzicka says. (Medicare does not cover routine hearing tests or any hearing aids). Prices range from $1,200 to $3,000, depending on the type, style and level of performance, and warranties typically run about three years. Many audiologists have payment plans that allow people to pay for a hearing aid in installments.
 
Unlike vision, hearing normally doesn’t change dramatically over time. “However, as people become accustomed to hearing better in a church or crowded restaurant, for example, they’re likely to want to try new devices as they become available,” Ruzicka says.
 
If you suspect you have hearing loss, be sure to have a diagnostic evaluation by an audiologist. Don’t self diagnose and decide to get a hearing aid; sometimes hearing loss may be due to something as minor as ear-wax buildup. Also avoid online hearing tests, which can be “highly inaccurate and lead to false results,” Ruzicka says.
 
"If you do need a hearing aid, be prepared to spend time with an audiologist discussing your needs and lifestyle,” Ruizka says. “The clinician will guide you with respect to performance needs, while you should select the type and size that work for you. It often helps to bring a friend along to provide feedback.”
 
Many audiologists also provide aural rehabilitation services  to help people adapt to their hearing aids. “People who get hearing aids after enduring years of hearing loss may not have heard the sounds of bacon frying or birds chirping for 20 or 30 years,” Ruzicka says. “Now they’re opened up to a new world of sound, and aural rehabilitation can help them acclimate to a new level of hearing.” 
 
Some people do, however, acclimate quickly on their own. When a friend of Mary Furlong got hearing aids for the first time, “Instead of sending cookies or flowers, I sent him a basket of his favorite CDs,” she says. “It was the best gift I could have given him."
 
Consumer Reports conducted a national survey on hearing loss a few years ago and followed a number of people as they tried to find hearing aids that fit and worked well for them. Although products and prices have changed, the report provides solid advice, as well as cautions, for potential hearing-aid purchasers.