An estimated 31 million Americans suffer from hearing loss - including millions of baby boomers who are paying the price for years of loud music and other auditory assaults - but 75% of those who could benefit from hearing aids are not currently using them. The average hearing-impaired person waits seven to 15 years before seeking help.
Vanity, denial and cost may play a part, but another reason is the widespread misconception that hearing aids are ineffective in solving problems like separating conversation from background noise. While this was true of conventional analog systems in the past, newer digital technology conquers this problem and other deficiencies. Today, digital hearing aids can boost hearing quality with strategies that include:
Sophisticated computer modeling that integrates 20 overlapping bands of sound to simulate human hearing and automatically adjusts any band where background noise overwhelms speech.
Filtering of sounds other than conversation through the use of two microphones - one that picks up sounds in front of the wearer, and a second that collects sounds from the sides and rear. Since the sounds are gathered separately, the tiny computer inside the hearing instrument can then enhance speech coming from the front and diminish distracting sounds originating from other directions.
Different hearing programs for quiet and noisy environments, with the most sophisticated systems able to intelligently sense the noise level and switch programs automatically without the need for manual intervention. Alternatively, programs can be changed by pushing a button on the hearing aid or on a remote control. Either way, this feature helps address the problem of hearing conversation in a noisy room.
Automatic detection and reduction of steady-state interference from sources like furnaces and fluorescent lights that exacerbate the background noise problem. According to a report from the Hearing Industries Association, nearly 90% of all hearing aids sold in the U.S. in 2005 were digital signal processing hearing instruments.
Also in high demand are assistive listening devices designed to supplement hearing aids in situations where the listener is exceptionally far from the speaker, room acoustics are poor, or background noise is excessive. These devices maximize understanding of speech by placing the microphone at the source of the sound, whether it is a TV, radio, telephone, teacher or lecturer.
Personal FM systems, for example, place a lavaliere-type microphone near the speakers' mouth and transmit the signal via wireless FM to a receiver attachment to a behind-the-ear hearing aid. This amplifies only the voice signal, improving hearing in classrooms, lecture halls, churches, movie theaters and other facilities.
"Today's hearing technology is light years ahead of where it was even a few years ago," said Cathy Jones, President of Phonak Hearing Systems, one of the world's leading developers and manufacturers of hearing aids and assistive listening devices, including the Digital Bionics family of hearing aids and a complete line of FM communication systems. "The Better Hearing Institute found that 95% of people with hearing loss can be helped with today's advanced hearing aids. Now the challenge is to encourage people to explore solutions for their hearing needs."
For more information on hearing aid technology and other issues related to better hearing, contact Phonak.