An all too familiar story about hearing aids

Almost every week I hear someone tell me the story of how their grandfather, grandmother, or parents had a difficult time using their hearing aids. They tell of how the aids squeaked constantly, fit horribly, and sounded harsh.  That story does not have to be the next generation’s experience with hearing aids. Technology changes fast: in 2005, the average 40-inch flat screen television would’ve cost you over $1,500. Now, 12 years later, you can purchase a 40-inch flat screen TV for around $400. Though the downward reduction of prices for digital hearing aids has not followed all other consumer electronic devices the same technology revolution has taken place with hearing aids, even though it’s more likely to escape the public’s attention. We take note that TVs become bigger, better, and more affordable, but we’re blind to the enhancements in hearing aids because we’re not bombarded with advertising and giant store exhibits. Nevertheless, hearing aids, along with all other consumer electronics, have improved dramatically over the past 12 years. If analog hearing aids are like the cumbersome 15-inch-tube-TVs of the past, modern day digital hearing aids are like the lightweight 65-inch-Ultra-High-Definition TVs of the present.  Why hearing aid prices have not fallen like all other electronic products is another topic for a different column.  Today I want to focus on the improved scientific ability of hearing aids.

Here’s what makes modern hearing aids better, starting with the technology that makes it all possible.  The key is digital technology.  Hearing aids, like all electronic devices, have become faster and smaller in the digital revolution.  HYPERLINK “” \t “–blank”  Hearing aids have evolved into miniaturized computers , with all of the information management you’d expect from a modern computer. The result is a device that is miniaturized, lightweight, energy-efficient, and capable of manipulating information-information being, in the example of a hearing aid, sound.

So how do modern-day hearing aids manipulate sound? Let’s use a comparison: visualize inbound sound as incoming mail at a post office and the digital hearing aid as a mailroom. As mail comes in, it’s identified, labeled, stored, and then delivered to the correct recipients. In the same way, digital hearing aids can take incoming sound and can label certain frequencies to be delivered to the amplifier. Speech sounds, for instance, can be identified as vital and sent to the speaker for amplification, then to the human ear.  Likewise, background noise can be tagged as “undeliverable” and suppressed.

Remember as I have written before, if someone tells you their hearing aid technology will eliminate all background noise they are either ignorant of the facts, poorly trained, or lying.  If background noise is present it cannot be eliminated it can only be manipulated or squeezed softer in the amplification.

Grandpa’s analog hearing aids didn’t have this “mailroom” selection ability. Incoming sound was delivered all at the same time and volume-like if the mail clerk were to give you everyone’s mail and you had to sort through the pile of mail yourself to locate your own letters. Speech simply gets lost in the mix with background noise, and you have to work hard to dig it out.

Digital adjustment of sound information is the key element to everything a modern hearing aid can accomplish. Here are some of the state-of-the-art features that are standard in most modern hearing aids. First of all let’s talk about feedback control. The pre-digital hearing aids were very poor at controlling feedback or the squeak coming from the hearing aid. This was very frustrating to the user and those near them. Newer hearing aids rarely squeak unless they are covered with a hand or a hat that fits down to tight over the ear. This is accomplished in the digital circuit through the software that runs the mini computer chip in the hearing aid. Speech recognition is another modern feature. Digital hearing aids can distinguish and boost speech with digital processing and directional microphones.  In other words, they can lift the speech sounds out of the clutter of noise. They do that through background noise suppression. Background noise is at a lower frequency sound, which the hearing aid can identify and suppress softer than the speech signals. Another easier aspect of the newer hearing aids is clearer phone calls. Telecoil technology amplifies the signal from your phone, leading to clear sound without interference. Many of the new aids go beyond the telecoil and have either an auto-phone function or can even pair with the phone through a wireless Bluetooth signal. Hearing aids equipped with Bluetooth technology can invisibly link to a variety of devices so you can stream music, phone calls, and TV programs straight to your hearing aids. Compatible hearing aids can be controlled with smart phones and digital watches, so you can effortlessly and inconspicuously adjust volume and settings.

This is just a small example of what these new hearing aids can do. To get the full picture of modern aids, visit a hearing aid manufacturer online or schedule an appointment with a hearing professional.

If you have the symptoms of hearing loss let a professional help you find out why. The hearing professional will help you sort out the technology level to meet your need, your budget, and answer your hearing need questions.


Jeffrey L. Bayliff, NBC-HIS, is owner of Hear the Birds Hearing Aid Center, Lock Haven.