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What is next for hearing aids?

At the beginning of this new year I was invited to a live online launch of a new hearing aid product. The company issuing me the invitation called it NEXT. I wondered humorously, what would be after NEXT? I mean how can you call a product NEXT and ever have any suitable names for other products that would follow the NEXT?

About a week before the scheduled launch I found out the word next was a marketing label for the event not the product. The maker and that product are not the focus of this article but the concept of what is really NEXT is! Hearing aids have come a long way in the last 50 years.

We have moved drastically smaller in size, from transistors to digital circuitry, and from tiny screw drivers, cables and then into wireless programming with Bluetooth capability. This enables the hearing aids to act as wireless speakers for the cell phone, TV, computer, or any other device that can stream or send a wireless audio file like music or the spoken word. Some current technology has tinnitus masking sound support and even GPS features so relatives know where you are or where the hearing aids are if you lose them.

The present aids can act like a fitness device, sending your pulse, steps, and sleep habits to a cell phone application. Some even have fall notification technology that will send a message to loved ones if you are down and can’t get up by measuring the distance of your ears/aids to the floor or ground. If you are horizontal and too close to a flat surface, zing goes a message to loved ones without you pressing a button on a neck loop. For all of the extra things hearing aids can do, recent advancements in actual sound clarity have taken leaps forward as well.

Hearing better in background noise is the “Holy Grail” of the hearing aid manufacturing research and development focus. In the past this has been done by buffering the background noise with directional microphones and in the past five years by a greater effort on the hearing aids recognizing the audio signature of any noise that is not human speech. All sounds have an audio signature and create certain sequential patterns when viewed on a spectrogram, a graph able to represent time, frequency, and amplitude of an audio sound or progression of many sounds. It is very complicated, but human speech has a different sound signature on a spectrograph than the chaos of background noise.

For the first time, one company has developed a process that embedded twelve million audio signatures of known background noise selections in the computer chips inside the hearing aids. When the hearing aid hears an audio signature that matches something that is already stored in its memory it automatically lowers the volume on that sound or sounds to allow the human speech to be heard more clearly.

Pretty amazing stuff!

A patient may not care about all the possible options with wireless functions, but hearing better has taken some recent dramatic leaps forward.

In articles I am reading and discussions I am having with account representatives from hearing aid manufacturers, they are predicting hearing aids will be able to translate foreign languages into our ears in real time within the next three years. Imagine how that will change our world!

Now that you know what is next for hearing aids, perhaps an appropriate question is what is next for your hearing?

There are a wide range of prices and products out there so each patient should do their homework and find out about hearing aid professionals in your area. As technology moves forward there will always be a next feature or function for hearing aids, but speech clarity in background noise is better that it has ever has been.

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

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