Health & Fitness

Hearing aids go high tech, are much smaller than you think

My friend Meg slips hers on only when she’s going to a noisy party or restaurant. My neighbor Bob uses his pretty much all the time.

Still, I didn’t have a clue until they each shared a “You’ll like this, Gizmo Guy,” secret that only their audiologist (and family) knew for sure. Both wear hearing aids.

Meg, 56, blames her loss on “too many rock concerts and blasting of headphones” (parents, warn your kids). Bob, 64, had a dad who was hard of hearing. Then he served in the Marines as an M-60 gunner, daily “shooting that darn gun.”

But even if you’ve taken great care to cover your ears, the odds are strong you’ll suffer some loss if you live long enough. Could be from natural attrition, meds or chronic diseases. About a third of Americans between 65 and 74 and nearly half of those over 75 have some loss, reports the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders. Yet only 20 percent of those who could benefit seek help. And even those who do will wait another decade to get their first set. In the interim, they can suffer – social isolation, depression or worse.

Denial is easy when the hearing loss comes on slowly. (Favorite excuses: “Honey, stop mumbling!” And “sorry, the TV’s on too loud!”)

Sticker shock is a deal breaker for many. While an initial evaluation with an ear, nose and throat specialist is covered by insurance (if you’ve gotten a referral), only 10 percent to 15 percent of major plans cover even partial costs (maximum $1,500) for the follow-up visits and hardware that can easily hit $5,000 to $6,800 for a package including doctor consultations and two high-end aids with extended warranties and insurance.

Pride also can stop potential buyers, especially if they’re not up to speed on new models. Aids used to be clunky with a separate box you carried in your shirt pocket, or pieces that clamped to the back ends of your glasses, or early behind-the-ears models “that stuck out like big carrots,” said audiologist Keith Albright at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine.

Discreet marvels

Not so now. High-end aids are super discreet, ultratiny marvels loaded with tricks. There are even “totally invisible models that are implanted in your ears by the doctor, then get switched out every few months,” said Albright. “But behind-the-ears models are the most popular.”

Invisible beneath her shoulder-length hair, Meg’s Siemens Carat cuties are color-matched to her skin and hair tones. The braided connecting wire is hardly there. And the slim earbuds vanish into her ears, enabling natural sounds to mingle with amplified ones.

Her set was custom-tuned to compress and amplify high-frequency sounds, the first to go for most people. Also cool, she controls the volume via an app on her smartphone.

Bob’s full-spectrum-elevating Orticon Opn hearing aids also double as wireless Bluetooth earphones, linking to his iPhone via an Apple setting that Albright says “is better refined than what we currently find on Android phones.”

For TV, Bob bought a $300 Orticon accessory, a wireless transmitter plugged into the optical audio output of his television set that feeds sound tracks to his aids “without disturbing my wife or the neighbors.”

Cheaper options

Like these solutions, but not the prices? Some cheaper alternatives could do you almost as well. But be prepared for careful deployment of those 45-day “money back” guarantees.

“It often takes people several weeks to get used to the sensation of wearing hearing aids,” noted Sreekant Cherukuri, a Chicago-based audiologist and founder of MDHearingAid.com, an online maker/seller of bargain-priced (yet Food and Drug Administration-certified) hearing aids costing $200 to $600 apiece. (Most other aids in that price range lack an FDA stamp and can be identified only as a personal sound amplification product, or PSAP.)

Gizmo Guy was intrigued by the new MDHearingAid Volt, the first behind-the-ears aid with super-easy recharging: Just plug in a standard cable that connects to any USB charger (including the one supplied with the unit). After three hours, the lithium ion battery is good for about 22 hours of use. Most other aids use tiny button batteries, which can be hard to install and last only five days, “costing the user about $160 a year,” calculated Cherukuri.

Meg and Bob both tested the Volt. She was not impressed; he pronounced it a good value. Right on the mark of Consumer Reports findings: Half of hearing-aid purchasers take them back for adjustment or exchange.

More sound advice. For a fast test of your hearing, download a free smartphone app like the Siemens Hearing Test or Mimi Hearing Test. The first measures vowel and consonant recognition; the second tests frequency acuity.

If the results are poor, schedule a doctor’s visit before you buy anything, said Albright. Could be you’ve just got years of waxy buildup.

Amplifiers

Sennheiser makes wonderful wireless transmitter/headphone systems (like the RS120, about $60) that can crank up the sound of your audio and video gear. Shopping for an amplified phone? Make sure it has “TIA.4953” certification.

While not as sleek or FDA certified like the MDHearingAid Volt, the well-reviewed CS50-Plus Personal Sound Amplifier ($349 from soundworldsolutions.com) offers a strong feature set. It includes a swappable battery that recharges on a base and Bluetooth connectivity to take calls and stream music.

Miss a lot at the theater or church? The T-coil Platinum version of the BEAN Quiet Sound Amplifier ($349 from Etymotic.com) is a smallish earbud model compatible with the transmitting loop systems in many theaters and houses of worship.

Looking for a high-end product at a discount price? Take your audiologist’s report to Costco. Its private-label hearing aids, made by top manufacturers, sell for $1,000 to $1,500 per unit.

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