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Advances in technology help people with hearing loss


The basics of hearing treatment technology have been around for some time. Long gone are the days when people with hearing loss had to decide between hearing less or wearing clunky, uncomfortable equipment that required constant fiddling. The technology improvements have accelerated, as have options and comforts for hearing loss sufferers.

"When I started 20 years ago, I was adjusting hearing aids with a screwdriver," said Michele Watts, an audiologist with Associated Ear, Nose & Throat Specialists in Valparaiso. "Now, we can make millions of fine-tuning adjustments using incredible digital software technologies."

When a person goes for hearing aid fitting, audiologists can narrow their hearing loss to the exact range of frequencies they're having trouble hearing. In short, hearing specialists can custom-tailor hearing aids to personal needs.

Unlike older hearing aids, which featured a simple up or down volume control, these fine-tuned devices are constantly self-adjusting to the wearer's environment and conditions.

"One of the biggest advances in hearing aids is Wide Dynamic Range Compression," said Jaclin Proctor, an audiologist with Southlake Speech and Hearing in Merrillville. "That means that the hearing aid gives the most boost, or gain, to the quietest sounds coming into it, and the least amount of gain to the loudest sounds coming in. In older hearing aids, the same amount of gain was produced for all of the sound. So people would be adjusting them up and down, up and down. People had to adjust their volume levels constantly."

Even with this new, individually designed style of care for hearing loss sufferers, the number of people not being treated for their hearing loss is staggering.

"Only 20 percent of people with hearing problems are actually fitted for hearing aids," Watts said.

Among the biggest reasons for this statistic is vanity, but that's not really an excuse anymore. In an age when electronics are racing to be smallest in size and sleekest in design, hearing aids are no exception; today's smaller, more discreet hearing aids look like cool high-tech gadgets instead of chunks of equipment.

"Another big advancement was the advent of the Bluetooth telephone," Proctor said. "If people see others using that and think of it as a status symbol, then they won't mind putting a small hearing aid device in their ear."

And there are hidden bonuses to these now nearly invisible devices.

"They're so comfortable and lightweight now that people don't even realize they're in once they get used to them," Proctor said.

Aside from hearing aids, the amount and variety of assisted hearing devices has progressed in recent years. Technology from hearing assistance companies such as Oticon's ConnectLine system and the ReSound Unite series wirelessly connect people with hearing loss to their televisions, personal computers, phones (landline and mobile), MP3 players, other people and anything else they can think of without taking out their hearing aids. There are "booming" alarm clocks, watches and telephone ringers, too, that make life easier for people with hearing problems.

While Watts says technology has improved in all treatment sectors, children and infants have benefited most in the past decade. Entire lines of hearing aids designed especially for kids (camouflage, butterfly and race car designs) can get them excited about their new gadgets. More importantly, kids get to develop their speech skills on schedule with their peers if fitted for hearing aids in infancy.

"The thing that's made the biggest difference is the Universal Newborn Hearing Screening laws," Watts said.

The UNHS programs, which now exist in 43 states, work to ensure newborns have their hearing tested before leaving the hospital. Before these state-run programs existed, infants often were not tested until 2 years old.

"Our goal is to fit newborns by 6 months because then their language can develop along with their hearing," Watts said.

Aside from improving the child's quality of life, there are financial advantages. The National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management reports that detecting and treating hearing loss at birth for one child saves $400,000 in special education costs by the time that child graduates from high school.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about 17 percent of American adults — roughly 36 million people — report some degree of hearing loss.

The strain hearing loss puts on how people interact is difficult, but progressive technology will continue to make solutions possible for more hearing loss sufferers.


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