There was a time when hearing aids may have seemed to many people like clunky, uncomfortable gadgets that were awkward to wear and advertised to the world that you had trouble hearing.
But today, you might not even realize that the person next to you is wearing a pair of devices so small and thin that they're mostly hidden behind the earlobes. You might be even more surprised to discover that the person can adjust those hearing aids with a few taps on a smartphone app — to make it easier to hear what you're saying in a crowded, noisy environment.
"There's a cool factor for hearing aids," explains Dr. Hope Lanter. "They're significantly better, smaller, streamlined." Lanter is the lead audiologist for hear.com, an online source for hearing aids from various manufacturers, which also offers access to a nationwide network of audiologists who can provide in-person testing and guidance.
One example of the trend: Hear.com has launched its own state-of-the-art product, the horizon, developed in partnership with engineers from hearing aid maker Signia, according to a press release. Hear.com describes the device using lingo that brings to mind a commercial for an imported SUV: "sleek, sexy and nearly invisible design with cutting-edge features and unparalleled power."
In addition to using an algorithm to improve speech clarity, the horizon also is designed to interact with smartphones and other devices, to handle phone calls, and stream podcasts, audiobooks and audio from TV.
Other hearing devices on the market have intriguing features as well. The Livio AI hearing aid, for example, utilizes artificial intelligence and integrated sensors, and not only makes it easier to hear what people are saying, but also works with a smartphone app to track physical and brain activity. It even has a feature that translates foreign languages for wearers.
Hearing Loss Is on the Rise
Some hearing loss is the result of aging, heredity or illnesses, such as meningitis, that can damage the ears, according to the Mayo Clinic. But exposure to loud sounds, which once was mostly a problem for industrial workers, is a growing problem in our increasingly noisy world.
A 2012 study by University of Michigan researchers found that about nine out of 10 New York City residents were chronically exposed to levels of noise that were high enough to harm their hearing. Some of the risk comes from traffic and other environmental sounds, but we inflict a lot of punishment on our ears by simply attending sports events and concerts. Listening to music through earbuds and cranking up the volume to drown out ambient noise that the buds let in also does damage.
As a result, more and more of us are having problems with our hearing at younger ages. A 2021 survey of 2,439 U.S. adults by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) found that fewer than half (49 percent) described their hearing as excellent, while another 38 percent said that their hearing wasn't as good as it could be, and 13 percent said they have difficulty hearing.
But even so, only about 20 percent of people in the poll have had their hearing tested in the past five years — compared to 61 percent who've had vision tests, 52 percent who've had their blood pressure checked, and 41 percent who've had their cholesterol levels tested or undergone mammograms. Hearing tests are even less popular than procedures such as prostate exams (24 percent) and colonoscopies (23 percent). And only 6 percent of people in the survey said they've gotten treatment for hearing loss.
Atlanta resident Kirsten Palladino, editorial director and co-founder of Equally Wed, was born with severe hearing loss in both of her ears. She doesn't even remember when she was first fitted for hearing aids. "I know that I put them in my desk drawer in third grade and refused to wear them," she says via email. "I was so embarrassed of them ... I just wanted to blend in and I felt like I stood out." Palladino, who is now 43, says it wasn't until she was failing her college courses because she was missing key information that she finally went to an audiologist and got hearing aids again.
The Ears Hear, the Brain Makes Sense of the Noise
Waiting like Palladino did is a problem, Lanter explains, because the longer someone allows hearing loss to continue, the worse the problem will become — and the more difficult it will be to remedy.
Though the ears pick up sound, it's really the brain that analyzes and makes sense of all that noise. And over time, auditory deprivation will lead to reduced activity in the parts of the brain that process sound. "If you stop using those areas in the brain, you lose them," Lanter says.
Once a person with hearing loss starts using hearing aids, there's a period of adjustment, Lanter says. Initially, the rush of unfamiliar sound may be disconcerting. "At first, it feels like too much," she explains. Gradually, though, as a hearing-aid user adjusts and gets to the right settings with the help of an audiologist, the regular exposure to sound can help the brain essentially to rewire itself. Lanter says brain imaging studies show audio-processing areas gaining and areas that provide visual processing reducing the load that they've been carrying.
"[With my hearing aids] I can hear my children, my wife, the rain, strangers in stores trying to get my attention, an ambulance blasting its siren behind me in the road," says Palladino, who has worn Miracle-Ear hearing aids since 2002, even though they lack a lot of the gadgets and whistles. "I'm able to function in society. Without them, I'm isolated and vulnerable."
Technologically advanced hearing aids actually can help make that transition easier. Hear.com's horizon has a feature called relaxed mode, "which turns off the mics and puts you into ocean wave sound," Lanter says. That capability allows a wearer to block out the noise of the world for a while and de-stress with calming sounds. That ability to take breaks and still keep the device in the ear has another plus, by making it less likely the wearer will remove the hearing aids temporarily and then forget to put them back in.