Health & Wellness

Not your grandfather's hearing aids: Hip, high-tech products can help you hear better

Watch a person who has trouble hearing try to cope without help from a hearing aid and you’ll see how hard it is to navigate life when this vital sense starts to weaken.

Cupping hands behind the ears only goes so far when it’s hard to understand the normal volume of conversations, television shows and the sounds of nature.

About 36 million American adults report some degree of hearing loss, with more men likely to be affected than women. But only one in five people who could be helped by wearing a hearing aid actually wears one.

“Stigma was one of the reasons that held people back. They didn’t want to appear like they were getting older,” said Neil DiSarno, chief staff officer for audiology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

“They’ll say, ‘My hearing is not bad enough. It’s really fine. I can get by.’ They think they’re getting by, but they’re really not.”

TODAY’s Matt Lauer pointed out most people still think of a hearing aid as the large device that sits on top of the ear, but the technology has come a long way since the design you saw your grandfather wearing. So DiSarno showed off the new generation of “hip” hearing aids and personal sound amplification products in the studio on Wednesday, with some completely hidden in the ear canal and others made to look like wireless phone receivers.

ReSound LiNX

DiSarno called this the “made-for-iPhone” hearing aid. Everything that is audible from the iPhone (or iPad or iPod touch), such as phone calls or music, can be streamed directly to the hearing aid.

“It works really well with a tech-savvy person. It takes a lot of the stigma away because individuals would actually be sitting there looking at their iPhone when they’re really making adjustments to their hearing aid,” DiSarno said.

Price: Starts at $2,300

Starkey Halo

This hearing aid is also engineered to work with an iPhone, plus it has noise reduction technology that adjusts to your location.

So if you frequent the same restaurant or coffee shop every day, it’s geo-tagged to that area and will automatically optimize for the best settings that work in that noisy environment, DiSarno said.

Price: Starts at $2,300

Phonak Lyric

This is a semi-permanent device that’s placed in your ear by your audiologist and it stays there for two to three months, DiSarno said.

“You can shower in it, sleep in it, it’s totally invisible. It’s way down in the person’s ear canal,” he noted.

The Lyric is sold on a subscription basis, which means you purchase a year's worth of devices at a time.

Price: $3,400 for a one-year subscription

Personal sound amplification products (PSAPs)

DiSarno also discussed personal sound amplifiers, a different category of products. Unlike hearing aids, PSAPs are not considered medical devices, so they are not regulated by the FDA and are not dispensed by professionals.

PSAPs aren’t for people who have impaired hearing, DiSarno said. Rather, they may help some people in certain circumstances hear better, while listening to a lecture, for example.

“These provide a little bit of amplification for the person who’s got one or two challenging listening situations,” he explained.

Some are made to look like Bluetooth headsets, so most people won’t know their true purpose.

Price: Ranges from $349 to $499, depending on the device and manufacturer.

If you're experiencing hearing loss, DiSarno advised seeing a doctor first to rule out any medical causes for the problem, which could range from earwax to a tumor, rather than self-diagnosing.

Meanwhile, he's excited by a new study that found chickens have the capacity to regrow sound-detecting cells after suffering hearing loss. Humans can't do the same, but the research hopefully is moving in the direction where there may be an application for people at some point in the future, DiSarno said.

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