The American Academy of Audiology has designated October as National Audiology Awareness Month and that comes on the heels of a myriad of advancements in hearing aid technology by several major manufacturers in the past month.
First, let’s talk about mask wearing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, masks are very necessary, however, there is an unintended consequence for the hearing impaired. While the mask helps limit the travel of our airborne droplets that are responsible for the transmission of the COVID-19 virus, they muffle our speech and take away important visual cues of speech on the lips that aid our understanding.
On the order of about 12 decibels – especially where soft, high frequency consonant sounds of speech occur – it essentially pushes a mild loss into a moderate range and a more moderate hearing loss into the severe range. The result is miscommunication, frustration and auditory fatigue. Also, masks can interfere with the wearing of hearing aids. For my patients, I recommend masks with elastic bands that go around the head instead of looping over the ears. They are less likely to get tangled up in hearing aids and don’t distend the ears to an unnatural position. Talk to your audiologist about adding or creating a special program to boost the high frequency sounds that can be accessed for situations were masks are being worn.
Small microphones, called remote microphones, can be useful for helping hear masked or socially distanced conversation. The remote microphone can be given to or placed near the talker whose speech is wirelessly streamed directly into the hearing aids.
Embrace technology such as “smart” devices and apps. The first made-for-smartphone hearing aids were released in 2014 and are now on their fifth generation. The great thing is that they are not limited only to iPhones. Almost any Bluetooth device (tablets, PCs can be paired up directly to or through a streaming device so that not only phone calls can be streamed but Zoom meetings, FaceTime and other video-based applications. The result is better understanding of what is being said. The free apps that supplement the manual adjustment of the aids allow the user increased flexibility to control external noise and focus in speech. You can create “favorites” that can automatically activate in specified locations using the GPS of the smartphone, like the grocery store where masks are worn, so you never have to touch your hearing aid or smartphone. One manufacturer’s app can even help you find your lost hearing aid and another can interface with the Ring doorbell.
Hearing aids are becoming easier to use for the patient through use of built-in rechargeable lithium batteries. A full charge will last all day long. Some chargers are rechargeable themselves so if you won’t have to go without if you will be spending the weekend up to camp or out the trails without electricity. Rechargeable hearing aids are no longer limited to the more popular styles that go behind the ear. They are now available in custom in-the-ear products as well.
Another major development is the use of accelerometers, which can allow those with limited dexterity an easier way to manipulate the function of the hearing aids without having to depend on pushing tiny buttons. These accelerometers can also detect falls that a patient may have which would then trigger a text message for designated caregivers alerting them to a potentially serious problem.
Lastly, remote support capabilities can allow the real time adjustment and fine-tuning of the aid without leaving the comfort and safety of your own home.
So help celebrate National Audiology Awareness Month by having your hearing and hearing aids checked by an audiologist and consider the great features and options to keep you well connected to your world.
Daniel Bigart, AuD, CCC-A, is a provider with Mount Nittany Physician Group Audiology. Dr. Bigart earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and received his doctorate in audiology from the Pennsylvania College of Optometry: School of Audiology in Elkins Park. He holds the Certificate of Clinical Competence from the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Audiology.