What’s New in Hearing Technology?

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If you have hearing loss, you likely have difficulty hearing what people say on the phone, at meetings, or in crowded places like restaurants, among other situations.

Dealing with hearing loss can be frustrating and leave you feeling isolated from family and friends. It can affect your ability to function in the workplace or at school. And some research suggests it raises a person’s risk of dementia.

Fortunately, there are solutions to help you start hearing better.

“Some people with hearing loss require higher levels of sophistication to overcome certain aspects of the nature of their hearing loss and to most effectively improve overall communication,” says Beth Humphrey, a doctor of audiology in the department of audiology and speech pathology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Knoxville.

“Other people may not require higher levels of technology to address their needs. This can be determined with a thorough evaluation and discussion with a hearing healthcare provider,” Dr. Humphrey says.

Your primary care doctor can conduct some basic hearing screening tests, but for more conclusive testing, you’ll need to see an audiologist.

Hearing Aids vs. Personal Sound Amplification Devices

In general, there are two types of hearing assistive devices available: hearing aids and personal sound amplification products (PSAPs).

Hearing Aids

According to Humphrey, hearing aids are designed to compensate for the hearing impairment and sound distortion that often accompanies hearing loss.

These devices are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means they must pass scrutiny as to whether they are safe and effective. Hearing aids are usually only available with a prescription from an audiologist, and while they may help you hear better in certain situations, they don’t cure or eliminate hearing loss entirely.

“Hearing aids are not a quick fix and don’t restore hearing to normal,” notes Humphrey. “It’s a process to acclimate to hearing aids and to learn to use them successfully. For the best success, find a professional that you’re comfortable working with over time to improve your hearing and communication.”

Personal Sound Amplification Devices

Conversely, PSAPs are intended for use by people who haven’t been diagnosed with hearing loss but need support in certain listening environments, typically where there is a lot of ambient or background noise. These products are not regulated by the FDA and are often available over the counter, meaning you can buy them without a doctor’s or audiologist’s prescription.

But the quality of PSAPs varies, and while they may help, Humphrey emphasizes that it’s important for anyone experiencing hearing loss to consult a specialist who can diagnose the problem and identify the best ways to manage it.

Choosing the Right Device for Your Hearing Problem

The right professional will comprehensively assess your hearing levels and overall communication status, Humphrey says, and take the time to listen to you and understand your particular needs.

Hearing aids for children may be covered by insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid (depending on your state), but they often aren’t covered for adults, although this is starting to change, she says. They tend to be more expensive than PSAPs, as they are medical devices, with prices ranging from as little as $500 per ear to as much as $3,000 per ear, she says.

“Some insurance plans have a benefit that can be used every three years or so that allows you to go to any provider and pick the device of your choice,” Humphrey says. “Other plans require you to purchase devices through a specific vendor or provider.”

“I would always recommend that people educate themselves on technology and price-shop,” she adds.

What’s New in Hearing Devices?

Several new hearing products that may provide some relief for people with hearing loss have been exhibited in recent years at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a meeting of technology innovators and entrepreneurs that takes place in Las Vegas every January.

Many of the newer hearing devices use Bluetooth technology — which uses radio frequencies to transfer data from one electronic device to another — to enable wireless communication between the hearing device and a smartphone, tablet, music player, or television. This type of interface may improve the sound quality of a phone call or TV show, for example, and in some cases, an app loaded on a phone or tablet allows the user to change some of the hearing aid or PSAP settings on a screen without having to handle the device itself.

Here are a few hearing devices that have come to market recently or are expected to soon.

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