Our hearing is one of the most intriguing senses. While we rely heavily on our vision for learning, we use hearing to communicate and understand location. Unlike a corrective lens in glasses, which strive to correct or restore our vision, hearing aids are just that: aids.
The best first steps in purchasing hearing aids are determining what you need and what hearing loss you have.
Significant strides have been made in hearing aid technology in the past decade including the shift from analog to digital and rechargeable hearing aids.
More advanced hearing aid features may not fit everyone’s needs and they can significantly increase hearing aid cost, maintenance, and programming requirements.
They work not only in the collection and amplification of sound, but the newest hearing aid technology also assists in processing the sounds into something that makes sense.
Our brain integrates the information from our hearing and balances differently than how we see things. We know from people who lose their vision, that our sense of hearing can become increasingly important in special recognition, predicting sounds, and even helping us visualize scenes, without actual vision.
Hearing aids have changed dramatically over recent years and for good reason. Computer technology has transformed everything in our world from cars to smartphones and even household appliances.
When choosing hearing aids, there are some basic features and a choice of newer, more complicated, and of course, more costly features. The best approach in choosing hearing aids is to determine exactly what your particular hearing impairment is and how to best “aid” the deficiency.
Just like some of the newest features on our smartphones which you may never use, it is important to determine the hearing aid features which you need, not want because they seem exciting. There are trade-offs in deciding what hearing aid features may be best for your situation.
Superfecta hearing aids
Juliette Sterkins is an audiologist and Hearing Loop advocate with the Hearing Loss Association of America who came up with the description of “superfecta hearing aids.”
Superfecta hearing aids describe the four most important features that are available today.
Telecoils for noisy environments
Telecoils or t-coils date back almost 100 years. They are wireless receivers that allow your hearing aid to connect to assistive listening devices or hearing loops in public settings such as schools, libraries, churches, and theaters. Telecoils were like the first streaming technology for hearing aid wearers.
Bluetooth has brought the streaming of sound to another level without wires. Bluetooth allows for instant connection of the hearing aids to a greater universe than telecoils such as our smartphones.
Having rechargeable hearing aids is a great leap forward, making the days of costly, challenging replacement batteries a thing of the past. Hearing aid batteries tended to go out at the worst times and end up in all the worst places like in a grandchild’s ear, or worse, in his or her throat. The only downside to rechargeable technology is making sure there is a charger available. This can be a problem if the charger is not packed on a trip.
Most people who are choosing hearing aids want them to cost less and not be seen. A popular option is hearing aids that are “invisible”, which fit down into the ear canals near the eardrums. Perhaps this subconsciously makes us feel better if no one can see the hearing aids, so we don’t have to explain the exorbitant cost in addition to the stigma of being hearing impaired. Hearing aids are still made in two basic designs with newer variations: In-the-ear (ITE) and Behind-the-ear (BTE).
Hearing aids come in everything from bold colors to skin tones to blend in. There is a trade-off with in-the-ear hearing aids which most people want initially in that they often lack some of the features they need or the amplification intensity.
The transition from analog to digital hearing aids took place years ago, so that decision is no longer something to consider. However, deciding what you need can be complicated now there are over-the-counter options because of the new US Federal Drug Administration rules.
Over-the-counter hearing aids and hearing amplification devices are designed for specific applications such as mild or moderate hearing loss. These options are self-fit, and appear to be lower cost, but they may not be right for you.
What other hearing aid features are there?
The list of new hearing aid technology features is growing. There are basic and advanced features. The four basic components of all hearing aids are a microphone, a processor, a receiver, and a power source.
More advanced features involve better sound processing and frequency response, but these features may dramatically increase the price of hearing aids, and they may not be necessary for every hearing aid user. Some of the more advanced features may include.
What electronic device doesn’t have a smartphone app today? Smartphone apps are becoming more mainstream in helping hearing aid users make adjustments to their settings, use remote controls, and track the user’s progress, which can be used by the hearing aid wearer and audiologist. Other settings may act as assistive listening devices such as helping convert text to voice or even translation to different languages.
These are settings that can be used for different settings such as treating tinnitus at night or relaxation exercises. Many hearing aid wearers are discovering this option as a good choice.
Almost all hearing aids have noise reduction, particularly when used to amplify high-frequency hearing loss. The newest hearing aid technology allows this noise reduction to be customizable to particular settings which many people find extremely helpful. An example is reducing wind noise when outside. Another is reducing loud, startling noises such as the crash of a dish falling on the floor in the kitchen.
Many people with hearing loss have difficulty with the localization of sound, particularly in noisy environments like busy restaurants. Directional microphones in higher-end hearing aids can provide the hearing aid wearer the ability to focus in several different directions.
The future of hearing aid technology will rely on reproducing how our brains interpret and respond to sounds. This may seem far-fetched, but some hearing aid manufacturers already offer hearing aids that claim to connect to our brain’s deep neural network. The concept is that through artificial intelligence, this hearing aid feature will create an artificial simulation of what your brain would interpret if you did not have a hearing impairment. This is the ultimate digital replacement for hearing loss.
Recent advancements in hearing aid technology mean there are many choices, which depend on your level of hearing loss and what features you need.
- Mayo Clinic. Hearing aids: How to choose the right one.
- National Council on Aging. The 12 Best Hearing Aids of 2022.
- National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Hearing Aids.
- US Food and Drug Administration. Hearing Aids and Personal Sound Amplification: What to Know.
- Hearing Loss Association of America. Juliette Sterkens biography.