today's hearing aids - smaller, sleeker, better sound
Remember those clunky hearing aids that amplified every little sound and made
it all but impossible to hear a conversation in a crowded restaurant? Today's
digital technology introduces models that are smaller, sleeker and have vastly
improved sound, allowing wearers to discriminate differences in noise level.
models not only have the capabilities
to deal with various sound environments, such as
crowded restaurants or stores, but also offer tiny
in-the-canal models, especially attractive to those
who don't want the device to be noticed by others. But the small size comes
at a price, with typical
digital models running from about $2,500 to
$3,500 per ear, versus the conventional hearing-aid
models procured for as little as $600 to $700 each.
Despite advances in hearing-aid technology, devices are used by only a quarter
of the 28 million Americans believed to suffer from hearing loss. After
age 65, as many as 1 in 4 people may need to use a hearing aid. Still
many senior citizens, unaware of the new technology and wary of negative stereotypes,
refuse to wear them.
This new digital technology provides an increased subtlety of sound and clarity,
according to David Fabry, vice president of education and public relations at
the hearing-aid company Phonak and the former president of the American Academy
of Audiology. Soft sounds are soft, and louder sounds do not become uncomfortably
loud. "Many hearing aids in the past have not really achieved that," said
Fabry, who noted that the older models merely amplified sound. "And through
the use of digital… we're providing a person with hearing loss the same
capability, to offer dynamics of sounds that someone with normal hearing would
Still, one concern audiologists said they repeatedly hear from patients is a fear
of being negatively judged for wearing a hearing aid. "Many people
associate hearing loss with getting older, and many people don't want to," said
Fabry. "As we have baby boomers who are living longer and working longer,
the idea of wearing a hearing aid might be seen by some as a sign of weakness
- in some way, you're not going to be able to do your job as well as that young
Gen-Xer who wants your job."
Karen Spayd, a California State University,
Northridge, audiology lecturer and clinic supervisor, said that hearing loss is
often gradual and can have a variety of causes - and it's not always apparent
to a person that he or she has lost hearing until communication with family and
friends suffers. "We try to tell
our patients that the hearing aid will provide better quality of life," said
Spayd, noting that not hearing well can have ramifications beyond missing a few
"If you let the hearing loss go, the hearing loss is associated with
not only communication breakdowns but depression, isolation and other factors. And
all that can be avoided by just having a hearing aid."
cost of a hearing aid is a major concern for many. Apart from some union plans,
most insurance options do not cover the cost of hearing aids. But as audiologist
Rose Bongiovanni, director of training and development at the hearing-aid company
Widex, explained, digital devices, which typically last four to six years, can
pay for themselves as audiologists can tweak the instruments to match a patient's
changing hearing ability over time.
Even with the new advances, though, patients
do not always heed their audiologist's recommendations to get help for their hearing
in a timely fashion. "Research
has shown that from the time a hearing loss is diagnosed to the time a person
does something about it, it is seven years," said Spayd. "That's seven
years of not having good quality of life."
As Carol Fee, a senior citizen who uses a digital model summed it up: "If
you want to communicate, get a hearing aid."
April 17, 2005