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The New Hearing Aids

They're sure not what Grandpa wore.
By
WebMD Feature

Back in the day, Grandpa needed a hearing aid -- war, hunting, and loud machinery had taken their toll. Most likely, his hearing aid was a big, beige "plug" in the ear. When he gave you a bear hug, you heard little whistles and buzzes.

"What many of us remember is Grandpa always fiddling with his hearing aid," says Trisha L. Dibkey, MA, CCC-A, chief audiologist at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. "He was always turning it up and down, adjusting it so he could hear right - trying to hear whoever was talking, trying to tune out the background noise."

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Sometimes, frustration won out - and Grandpa just gave up on the thing.

"It was very difficult to get those old hearing aids adjusted just right," says Earl Bowie, MD, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at Ochsner Clinic Foundation North Shore in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. "If there was any background noise, or if you were moving around, you would get feedback. Feedback kept many people from wearing a hearing aid."

No wonder that only one in five people who need a hearing aid actually wear one, according to the National Institutes of Health. But times have changed. Today's hearing aids offer greater style and technology options - making them better-performing, better looking, and easier to wear.

New Hearing Aids: Digital Technology and Tiny Microphones

Fast-forward to the age of digital technology. You'd never know Grandpa -- or dad, or you -- even has a hearing problem. Today's hearing aids are much smaller - "virtually invisible," Bowie says. Also, "most hearing aids today contain a microcomputer that is much more sophisticated in responding to noise in the environment, so you don't get feedback and echoes."

Like an excellent stereo sound system, these new hearing aids filter out background noise, clean up and clarify the sound quality, automatically adjust the volume. Plus, they are computer-programmed to match the nuances of each person's hearing loss. "It's like the equalizer on a radio, we can set 16 bands to match their hearing loss at every pitch," Dibkey says. "These hearing aids are tailor-made to match their hearing loss."

"The directional microphone has been one of the biggest improvements in hearing aids," says David Fabry, PhD, an audiologist with Mayo Clinic for 15 years. He is now the director of clinical research at Phonak Hearing Systems, a company that specializes in wireless communication devices.

Directional mics don't fit into the tiniest hearing aids that nestle hidden in the ear canal. But "if you're looking for better satisfaction with your hearing, then you need a directional mic," says Fabry. "That is the single factor that will preserve speech understanding and filter out noise - and those are the No. 1 concerns that people have -- they want to hear better in a noisy environment."

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