The same technology that powers the latest generation of popular wireless headsets is now being used to enhance the flexibility of hearing aids.
The Bluetooth system may be best known for spawning a nation of cell phone users whose conversations are often mistaken for soliloquies. Now, these ubiquitous earsets are being put to use to expand the precision and flexibility of the technology used to help people with hearing impairments. According to industry experts, these minuscule devices are set to have a big impact on the lives of the hard-of-hearing.
These advances are especially welcome at a time when hearing impairment is impacting a broader cross-section of the population than ever before. It is estimated that 28 million Americans have some form of hearing impairment, ranging from mild hearing loss to total deafness.
Baby Boomers Face Challenges of Aging
As the average lifespan increases, more seniors are facing the challenge of living with hearing loss. Government health statistics indicate that nearly half of those 75 and older have some degree of impairment.
Growing numbers of baby boomers are also beginning to grapple with the health impact of the aging process, which, for many, includes a decline in hearing acuity. Researchers believe that the first generation to come of age in the rock n roll era faces a much greater risk of early hearing loss than did their older counterparts. Over the last several decades, noise-related hearing impairment among the 45-64 age group has increased more than 150%.
Ironically, though baby boomers face a disproportionate risk of hearing loss, they are often resistant to the notion of wearing a hearing aid; one recent study found that less than 25% of 45-to-64-year-olds whose hearing loss merited an aid had actually been fitted for a device.
Better Hearing, Less Self-Consciousness
The sizable gap between the number of people who need hearing aids and the number of people who actually own and use hearing aids may be the result of the persistent stigma long attached to the devices.
Many people associate hearing loss with aging or infirmity, harboring a nagging sense that getting fitted for such a device would mean surrendering a measure of vigor and independence. Others have aesthetic concerns, assuming incorrectly that the latest devices will have the same bulky, conspicuous look as those their grandparents might have worn decades ago.
These objections -- and many other negative perceptions of hearing aids -- may soon be rendered obsolete as the latest generation of devices gain wider distribution in the market. Like many other technological advances in recent years, breakthroughs in hearing aid technology have allowed the production of increasingly smaller devices, with some new models that are no larger than a dime.
The shrinking technology has allowed for the production of sleeker, more streamlined models. Today, its often difficult to distinguish between Bluetooth headsets and the latest generation of hearing aids -- and thats exactly the kind of convergence that hearing health advocates and hearing aid manufacturers alike want to foster.
Perhaps even more significantly, the latest hearing aids incorporate advanced technologies that hold the promise to greatly extend their functional flexibility. According to Dr. Jerry Yanz, Senior Trainer for leading hearing aid manufacturer Starkey (www.starkey.com, www.hearwireless.com), Bluetooth-enabled headsets will soon allow users to link to any of thousands of new wireless devices, seamlessly integrating improved hearing with other communication, productivity, and even entertainment technologies.
What Exactly is Bluetooth?
Developed in the late 1990s through a collaboration between leading technology firms, Bluetooth is a wireless communication platform that allows for the transfer of data between two or more electronic devices. The technology uses radio waves set to a high frequency to transmit data without interference or security risks.
Today, cell phones remain the most popular application for Bluetooth technology, although a wide variety of other products incorporating Bluetooth connectivity have also been developed, ranging from PDAs and printers to gaming systems and home technology equipment. As the popularity of wireless technology grows, it is expected that even more consumer products will begin take advantage of this wireless data-transmission protocol.
At first glance, it may not appear that this kind of system would have much to do with hearing aids. Traditionally, the devices have focused on amplifying sounds and, in later models, eliminating unnecessary background noise. With the addition of Bluetooth connectivity, however, manufacturers can now create hearing aids that will transcend the limitations of this basic model and vastly expand the possible applications of the devices.
New Horizons in Connectivity and Amplification
Hearing aids enhanced with the Bluetooth platform offer a number of significant advancements over standard models. From a connectivity perspective, they allow hearing-impaired people to stay in touch using cell phone technology, a convenience that has long been out of reach for most hearing aid users due to persistent interference problems.
Dr. Yanz predicts that in the future, hearing aid users will be able to connect to a wide array of data streams and signals using Bluetooth-enabled devices, allowing easy access to amplified versions of classroom lectures, television broadcasts, concerts, and many other public events. Another goal that is shaping current research is developing the technology to support multi-point broadcasts, which will allow for more dynamic interaction between headsets and data streams.
Today, wireless connectivity is primarily being used to control simple variables in hearing aids, such as leveling the volume of the left and right earpieces for users with bilateral hearing impairment. However, it is expected that future developments in Bluetooth-enabled hearing technology and other similar wireless technology will allow for much more sophisticated controls.
For example, wireless connectivity with a remote microphone could enhance a hearing aids ability to focus with much greater precision on desirable sounds, such as voices, while reducing or eliminating superfluous background noise, a variable that is referred to as noise-to-signal ratio. Researchers also envision a day in the near future when the technology may enable automatic remote adjustments of hearing aids. This will ensure that users benefit from optimal performance in all environments without having to bother with constant manual corrections.
Connecting to the Future of Hearing Aid Technology
The advent of Bluetooth connectivity has dramatically expanded the possibilities for hearing aids and amplification devices. In just a few short years, this system has already changed the ways that researchers think about hearing and design new hearing aids. And, as Yanz says, the now-common sight of Bluetooth headsets is already beginning perceptibly to change peoples mindsets about hearing aids and chip away at the stigma long attached to them.
Many in the field expect these developments to extend help to people at every point on the spectrum of hearing loss, even -- or maybe especially -- those who have been reluctant to seek assistance in the past, such as hard-to-please baby boomers drawn to the sleek look and futuristic appeal of the new devices.