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March 13, 2017

These Aren’t Your Grandfather’s Hearing Aids

Every time I meet a client who is new to hearing instruments I am reminded that outside
of my audiology bubble many people still think of hearing instruments as the bulky whistling monstrosities their grandparents wore. When I start talking about how hearing instruments can differentiate between speech and noise, stream phone calls, music, videos and be pair with other smart devices in their homes I typically get one of two reactions. If they are tech savvy they get very excited and wonder why they waited so long, if they are technology phobic they will respond with something like “I really just want a hearing aid”. But today there is no such thing as “just a hearing aid”…today we have hearing instruments. Okay, I know what you’re thinking…aren’t those the same thing? I would like to argue that they are not.

To say that it is just a hearing aid is to say that your latest iPhone is just a mobile phone. The first mobile handheld phone call was made on April 3, 1973. The phone weighted 2.4lbs and measured in at 9x5x1.7 inches. You could talk for a whopping 30 minutes before you needed to charge the phone which took approximately 10 hours!

To say that it is just a hearing aid is to say that your Mercedes Benz is just a car. The first vehicle to be propelled by an internal combustion engine was the Benz Patent-Mortorwagen which was created in 1885. The car reached a top speed of 7mph but later models were able to go much fast hitting top speeds of 10mph.

So to say it is just a hearing aid is to say it is like the first hearing aid which was actually an ear trumpet invented in the 18th century. This was literally a hollowed-out horn of a cow or ram. The horn did not amplify sound but it would help to funnel the sound into the user’s ear.  An actual hearing aid was not invented until the 1920s when the vacuum tube hearing aid was introduced. The components fit into a wooden box that was held up to the user’s ear. Then came the body worn hearing aid in 1938. This consisted of an earpiece attached to a wire, which attached to a box clipped to the user’s clothing, which attached to a battery pack that attached to the users leg. The first behind the ear hearing aid was not developed until 1952. It was analog technology that amplified everything in the environment exactly the same whether it was speech, noise, or wind.

Hearing instruments today are cosmetically appealing and able to process environmental sounds and speech in a similar way as the brain. The hearing instruments are constantly analyzing and categorizing sounds in the environment as speech, music or noise. When noise is present the instruments will evaluate the sound to determine if it is due to traffic, wind, or restaurant babble. This constant ongoing analysis changes how sounds in the environment are processed and amplified. Programs are automatically changed, directional microphones are redirected, and noise suppression features are turned on and off. The result of all this behind the scene’s analysis is more natural hearing for those wearing hearing instruments.

Sounds incredible, right? They are! Which is why I love demoing hearing instruments on my new clients. But there is so much more to them…today’s hearing instruments (not hearing aids) are also compatible with smart phones. iPhone and Android users can pair their hearing instruments directly to their phones through an App. The features of the App vary slightly by manufacturer but basically allow you to check the status of your hearing instrument battery, adjust the volume of the hearing instruments, change the program, adjust the directional microphone or decrease the amount of background noise. The phone can also be turned into a remote microphone to give extra amplification to someone speaking further away which can be beneficial at a conference or larger meeting. And if you lose your hearing instruments the phone will help you find them.

But that’s not all…if you are really into the techy stuff another emerging technology allows you to pair your hearing instrument with other smart devices in your home through the If This Then That (IFTTT) App.  IFTTT allows you to connect smart devices in your life by creating recipes. To make a recipe you first select a trigger (If This) then you select an action (Then That). An example could be If This hearing aid battery is low Then That phone will text you a message to change it. Another possible recipe would be: If This hearing aid is turned on Then That coffee machine will begin brewing. What? You don’t have a smart coffee machine. Neither do I but you can purchase a Belkin Wemo Smart Plug which is IFTTT compatible. Plug your coffee machine into the Wemo and you now have a smart coffee machine.

Want more…good because I saved the best for last. iPhone or iPad users can also directly stream phone calls, music or movies directly to their hearing instruments. Having the sound through both hearing instruments actually can give you an advantage over a normal hearing individual using a Bluetooth headset on just one ear. First the instruments are amplifying the call to accommodate for your hearing loss while reducing other sounds around you. And by having the call go to both ears you are allowing the brain to process and hear speech as it was meant to.  Our brain consists of two hemispheres. The left side of the brain is our analytical side where as the right side is the artistic side. Speech coming into the right ear travels to the left side of the brain where we determine what is said, whereas speech entering the left ear travels to the right side of the brain where we determine the meaning or feeling behind the words. So, if someone says “Sure, mom I’ll get right on that” the left side of the brain processes the words while the right side determines the meaning behind the words. Was it said sincerely or sarcastically. Hearing a call in both ears allows us to both hear and analyze the conversation.
For those using Android phones the direct streaming of phone calls is not yet available. However, I know this will be available soon. But for now those with Android phones who would like to stream calls can purchase an external streamer. The phone will pair to the streamer which will then transmit calls, music or movies to the hearing instruments.

If you do not have a smart phone or you do but want even more streaming options, there are a number of assistive listening devices that can be paired with your hearing instrument as well. The two my clients most enjoy are the remote microphone and the TV streamer. Remote microphones are a great option for meetings, conferences or lectures where you are at a distance from the speaker, or when in environments with an abundance of background noise. Hearing instruments are amazing but they can only amplify the sound that reaches their microphones. If you are outside of the conversational range (6 to 8ft) some of the airier sounds in speech like an s, sh, f, th, or p may not actually make it to the microphone to be amplified. Along those same lines if you are in an extremely loud environment the noise around you may mask those same speech sounds before they are able to be picked up by the hearing instrument. In these cases, the external microphone can be clipped onto the speaker’s lapel or placed on the table near the speaker and will transmit the speech directly to the hearing instrument without external interference.

TV streamers connect to your television and transmit sound directly to your device giving you real-time stereo sound from the television while reducing or completely shutting off the sound coming from the room you are in. This works great if you live in a lively household where the TV is not in a quiet room.

So, I will get off my soap box now but before I do I have to ask…do you really want “just a hearing aid” or a hearing instrument? A device capable of amplifying speech, reducing bothersome noise in your environment, streaming phone calls, movies, and music all while brewing your morning coffee!