Approximately 17 percent of American adults, about 36 million people, report some degree of hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDOC), part of the National Institutes of Health.
Age is one primary determinant of hearing loss, but surprisingly more young Americans are experiencing it too, mostly from exposure to loud sounds or consistent noise. Yet despite the numbers, only about one in five who could benefit from a hearing assistive device actually uses one.
Experts point out that the variety of devices available today offers something for everyone. One of the newest technologies is the Bluetooth-enabled hearing aid, says Jeff Singer, an audiologist and senior vice president of sales and operations for HearUSA Inc., a national chain of hearing clinics with four St. Louis locations.
“Most of the higher-end new digital hearing aids have Bluetooth capability, and they are coming down in price,” Singer says. Bluetooth is the trade name for a short-range communications technology that wirelessly connects electronic devices. Several manufacturers now offer Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids, which allow users to connect wirelessly to their cellular phones, MP3 music players and some TV sets.
“It’s true that this is not for everyone who is not technical,” Singer notes. “However, it really isn’t that difficult to use. It’s programmed by the professional, and then the patient has to make some adjustments on the TV and phone.”
Once Bluetooth is set up, the user can receive TV audio wirelessly, directly through their hearing aids, says Carol Bergmann, an audiologist and owner of Hearing Health Care Center in Ellisville. “This allows for others watching TV to set the volume at an appropriate level for them, while the hearing-aid user does not suffer any volume loss.”
Bergmann also points out, “Other technological advancements are being seen in the size of the hearing instrument. In the past, audiologists were limited by power output in the completely-in-the-canal hearing aid style. Now, manufacturers are able to put more power into the smallest hearing aids, expanding the fitting range.” Some newer hearing aids have the ability to check themselves, allowing the user to diagnose problems such as wax build-up, she adds. “The hearing aid is smart enough to tell the user what is wrong with it.”
Perhaps some of the most exciting developments in treating hearing loss are new surgical techniques that allow physicians to implant hearing assistive devices. Dr. J. Gail Neely, a specialist in head and neck surgery with Washington University Physicians, notes, “The entire device can be implanted so that it is completely hidden and provides very good sound quality.” Implantable hearing devices are becoming more widely available, and Neely expects their use will increase in coming years.
Another new technique, the bone-anchored hearing aid, involves a screw that is placed in the skull and integrates with the bone, Neely explains. A few millimeters of the screw protrude from the scalp, and a hearing aid snaps onto the protrusion. “Bone helps conduct the sound,” Neely says. Bone-anchored hearing aids are most often used for people who have conductive hearing loss due to a problem with or deformity of the inner ear. They also allow people who are deaf in one ear to hear bilaterally by conducting the sound from the hearing ear to the non-hearing ear. “I’ve seen some big, tough men tear up when they realize they can hear using one of these devices,” Neely says.
While new technologies continue to make it easier to rectify hearing loss, Neely emphasizes that the best course of action is prevention. “If you experience ringing in the ears or muffled sounds after noise exposure, then you’ve damaged your ears, and that damage is cumulative,” he says. “The best strategy is to protect your hearing in the first place.”