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These Aren’t Hearing Aids—They’re Gadgets

October 2019

These hearing aids I’m wearing aren’t your grandma’s hearing aids, or your dad’s. Instead, these are really cool gadgets.

Grandma’s hearing aids didn’t have Bluetooth wireless. Mine do. I can stream music from my iPad or smartphone or computer directly to my hearing aids. I have the option of buying a small device that I connect to my TV that sends the TV’s sound to my hearing aids.

Yesterday when I was on the highway, Siri’s turn-by-turn directions from my iPad were wonderfully audible. My hearing aids would slightly mute the highway sounds about a second before my iPad streamed the directions to them.

If I get a call on my smartphone, I can press a button and the call comes to my hearing aids, and their microphones pick up my voice.

I’ve had them for a little over a month as I write this, and I’m still learning all the things they can do.

Frankly, I’ve been ecstatic. I can hear so clearly again, after several years of asking certain people to repeat what they said. Hearing loss comes on gradually. I first noticed a hissing sound in my ears back in 1993. An audiologist assessed my hearing and said that I had a loss in the higher frequencies. The hissing was the dreaded tinnitus.

For years I got by just fine and wasn’t much concerned. Then about eight years ago I was riding in a car to the airport with three other people. The person next to me in the back seat was conversing with those in front, and I was astonished: I couldn’t understand a word those in the front seat were saying.

Still, I got by. Then about three years ago I began to strain to hear what certain people with quiet voices were saying. I could still hear, but would sometimes ask them to repeat. I wasn’t quite ready for hearing aids.

It was, of course, the stigma.

Then over a year ago a good friend (whose voice I could hear) told me she was concerned for my wellbeing. She’d read that hearing loss is associated with mental decline, in part because people who are hard of hearing will often become more isolated, with the lack of engagement causing their brain function to decline.

And more recently I read about research showing that straining to hear impairs cognitive function and memory. If your brain is working hard just to understand, it doesn’t have the necessary resources available to process the incoming information efficiently or to retain it.

Plus, a friend pointed out that hearing loss happens when the fine hair cells in your inner ears that register the vibrations become damaged and die. This can be due to exposure to loud noise or simply aging. The point he made to me was that even though those hair cells die, the neural pathways are still there. But he said if I waited too long to get hearing aids, those nerves would atrophy.

The time had come. But as I learned more about what was available, my attitude completely shifted. And once I got my gadgets, I felt no stigma at all. They have so much utility. I actually wanted people to notice them so I’d have a chance to talk about how cool they are.

In fact, I think hearing aids may eventually become a consumer item. They’re not that much different from Apple’s AirPods, which are sort of shaped like tiny golf clubs, with the earbud part in one’s ear and a thin one-inch shaft hanging down. You’ve probably seen young people walking down the street carrying on an animated phone conversation via their AirPods, which connect via Bluetooth to the phone in their pocket or purse.

But I think my hearing aids are one better. Costco’s audiology center spent about 45 minutes assessing my hearing and then the manufacturer configured the hearing aids to match my particular hearing loss, including the fact that it’s worse in my right ear.

Then a week later when my hearing aids arrived from the manufacturer, Costco actually assessed the reverberations in each of my ear canals so that my hearing aids are exactly tuned to their specific shape. When I stream music from my iPad, I’m getting sound that’s perfectly tailored for my hearing.

It cost $1,500 for the pair, and they’re essentially the same as hearing aids that cost thousands of dollars more. They’re very small and sit behind my ears, with a tiny plastic tube that goes into my ear canals.

Unlike grandma’s, they automatically adjust throughout the day depending on the situation: whether it’s quiet or noisy, or if there’s very loud noise. They also automatically adjust if you’re in a car, or if there’s an echo, or if you’re listening to music. And more. If I’m talking with someone in a noisy restaurant, the person’s voice is amplified and the ambient sound reduced.

So go ahead, ask me about my hearing aids. I love these gadgets.

© 2019 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen