5 Ways Hearing Aids Have Changed in the Past 10 Years

Grandfather enjoying time with his children and grandchildren

One dreary December day in 2006, I sat in my office in the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and tightly gripped the arms of my desk chair. I rocked back and forth for what seemed like hours, and finally got the nerve to stand up, walk to the office next door, and knock. That was the knock that changed my life.

I walked in and gave my boss notice that I was resigning my position as Assistant Professor and Hearing Clinic Director to start my own business and pursue a career in private practice Audiology. My life has certainly changed a lot since then. My kids are growing up, my hair is turning grey, and technology has changed the way we do almost everything. Hearing aid technology has changed dramatically as well over the last ten years. Here are the five biggest changes we have seen in hearing aid technology in the last ten years.

1. BYE, BYE BARREL

Ten years ago, one of the biggest complaints audiologists faced from hearing aid wearers was the occlusion effect. The occlusion effect is the feedback a hearing aid wearer gets from his or her own voice while speaking. When we speak, sound generated in the vocal folds travels through the bones of the skull, into the ear canal. When the ears are plugged up (as they were with many hearing aids at the time), patients often described their voices as “sounding like I’m talking in a barrel.”

Around 2005, the first Open fit (also known as Open canal) hearing aids were introduced. These hearing aids are very small devices that fit over the wearer’s ear with a small, non-occluding tip that fits in the ear canal. Open fit hearing aids revolutionized hearing aid fittings because audiologists could now make our patients hear better without plugging their ears. Open fittings increased comfort, eliminated occlusion, and opened up hearing aids to a whole new market of patients that could not or would not tolerate devices that plugged their ears. Here is a link to a research study (published by yours truly) documenting the benefits of open canal fittings:

2. WHISTLE NO MORE

Prior to the introduction of digital hearing aids in the 1980s and 1990s, hearing aids were widely known for that annoying squeal. Hearing aids that whistle were common place 10-20 years ago. The whistling sound, called feedback, was created when the hearing aids didn’t fit the ear well or were cranked up too loud for the fit. Hearing aid wearers and audiologists were constantly fighting to try to get more sound without making the devices squeal.

The first digital hearing aids became commercially available in the mid 1990s. The advent of digital technology allowed for much more control over the signal and the processing of the hearing aids. Although the first digital hearing aids didn’t do much better than their analog forerunners at stopping feedback, with every new generation of hearing aid technology, manufacturers have gotten better and better at providing powerful hearing aids with less whistle. Today’s digital feedback cancellation systems are very good at limiting feedback and immediately suppressing it when it occurs. Hearing aids today simply do not whistle if they are fit appropriately, making the hearing aid wearer’s world a lot more pleasant.

3. PERFORMANCE IN NOISE

One of the biggest complaints of patients with hearing loss is difficulty hearing in the presence of background noise. Unfortunately, hearing aids do not solve this problem completely. Hearing aids have, for the most part, always been designed to amplify speech. In noisy environments, amplifying speech is a good thing, except when we amplify the speech of people we don’t want to hear.

Photo of Hearing Aids and Otoscope

The last ten years have seen significant advancements in how hearing aids perform in noise environments. Hearing aid wearer’s performance has improved primarily due to improvements in directional microphones. Directional microphones work by amplifying certain directions more than others. Ever wonder how they can pick a quarterback calling plays at the line of scrimmage? Sports television folks use highly-directional microphone systems to zoom in and pick up his voice. Hearing aids have been using directional microphone systems for many years. In the last 10 years; however, directional systems have become increasingly more effective.

Today’s directional microphone systems can narrow the sensitivity of the microphones to a 30 degree azimuth in front of the listener. They can also be selectively tuned to listen to the right or left. Out of all hearing aid features that have ever been assessed to help in background noise, directional microphones have always showed the most significant improvements.

4. Automatic Function

15-20 years ago, hearing aids with volume controls were the norm. Most hearing aids were linear, meaning that they amplified soft and loud sounds the same. Linear hearing aids required regular volume adjustment to keep soft sounds audible but loud sound tolerable. Next came compression hearing aids. These devices amplified soft sounds more than loud, requiring significantly less volume adjustment. In the last ten years digital processing has greatly improved automatic hearing aid function. 

Today’s automatic hearing aids adjust more than just volume. The digital processor analyzes the sound entering the microphones and classifies the listener’s sound environment. Higher technology hearing aids are now able to determine if the wearer is in a quiet situation, a noisy environment, or an automobile. Classification systems can also determine if there is music present and make appropriate adjustments.

Automatic hearing aids have greatly improved the hearing aid wearer’s experience. Rather than requiring constant user adjustment, most hearing aid users today can simply put the devices in and take them out. This automatic function is especially valuable for patients with limited dexterity and those who are very active and don’t want to be messing with their hearing aids.

Wireless connectivity

Perhaps the biggest change in hearing aids in the past ten years, has been the incorporation of wireless/Bluetooth connectivity. Most hearing aids today are capable of connecting wirelessly to cell phones, computers, televisions and other devices.

With Bluetooth enabled hearing aids, patients can hear the phone or TV directly in their hearing aids without ever having to raise the phone to their ear or crank up the volume on the television. Some hearing aids today are direct to iPhone compatible so that users can install an app on their iPhone that allows them to hear the audio through their hearing aids. The app also allows the user to control volume, monitor battery status, and even find the hearing aids when they are missing.

Hearing aid technology has evolved rapidly over the past ten years. Providing more benefit and satisfaction to hearing aids wearers than ever before.  Interested in learning more about how the latest hearing aid technology can help you hear life better? Contact Dr. David Gnewikow, Nashville Audiologist and schedule a free consultation today.