Do you feel the way The New Yorker staff writer David Owen does? “If I could relive my adolescence, I wouldn’t listen to Steppenwolf with loudspeakers leaning against my head, and I wouldn’t have cherry-bomb fights with my friends unless I was wearing ear protection,” he wrote in his April 3 story “High-Tech Hope for the Hard of Hearing.”
Five decades after adolescence, Owen now has the high-frequency hearing loss that’s typical with age, and on top of it, a persistent ringing in the ears called tinnitus.
But as Owen’s reporting showed him, hearing loss treatment options are improving. There’s also more potential than ever for science to make the big leap from compensating for hearing loss to actually restoring hearing. Here are three promising developments:
The Food and Drug Administration recently announced that it was making the first moves toward creating a category of over-the-counter hearing aids.
1) The discovery of “hidden” hearing loss opens up a new path to a potential cure.
The “pure tone” test administered by audiologists measures damage to the ultrasensitive hair cells in the inner ear. But as it turns out, the test can’t measure the loss of synapses, the connections between nerve cells. That discovery explains why two people with identical audiogram results can have very different hearing ability — one person may be missing more of those synaptic connections. As Fortune reported last September, biotech companies are now not just looking for ways to regrow hair cells. They’re also exploring the development of medications to regrow pathways between cells.
2) Hearing aid technology keeps getting more sophisticated.
Bluetooth has allowed hearing aids to function like wireless earbuds for a while now, enabling users to directly stream audio from their phones, televisions, tablets and other devices into their ears. There have also been advances in changing the settings on hearing aids. GPS geotagging automates the way some hearing aids switch from, say, the setting you use at work to the one you use for your favorite coffeeshop. And in April, Denmark-based GN Hearing, which makes ReSound hearing aids, announced that it’s using Cloud technology for remote hearing aid adjustments. That should mean fewer trips to the audiologist, because professionals and patients can now work together on adjustments even if they’re thousands of miles apart.
3) Less expensive over-the-counter devices look like they’ll become more available.
Maybe the biggest news in recent months came from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which in December announced that it was making the first moves toward creating a category of over-the-counter hearing aids. Up until now — and until regulations actually change — nonprescription devices can’t be called hearing aids. They’re called “personal sound amplification devices” instead, and their quality is very uneven. By creating an officially recognized category for nonprescription aids, the FDA and others hope to open up the marketplace, improving the quality of over-the-counter devices, bringing hearing aid prices down and make hearing loss treatment accessible to many more people.
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