While older hearing aids provided varied results in different locations – a noisy restaurant versus a quiet home, for example – new innovations mean modern hearing aids can adjust automatically to a variety of sound environments. Exciting new features inspired by smartphones can help in other ways as well: counting your steps, alerting you to a potential fall, or even keeping track of your connections with other people! Here are the top 10 innovations to look for in your next hearing aid purchase.
1. Improved microprocessors for better speech clarity and customization
With any level of hearing loss, your main goal is to get as close as you can to a natural level of hearing. The microprocessors in hearing aids are constantly improving. New models provide a much higher level of speech clarity than ever before, taking advantage of advances in narrow directionality, spatial configuration, and echo adjustments to provide a better hearing experience with distinct speech and less sound distortion. Modern microprocessors also make new hearing aids more customizable than ever. Everyone’s level of hearing loss is unique, with different sound frequencies affected in different people. Newer hearing aids have improved frequency response, which means they can better target only the frequencies affected by your specific kind of hearing loss.
2. Artificial intelligence: hearing aids that learn how to optimize your hearing
New hearing aids use machine learning algorithms to analyze your sound environment and identify specific sounds and familiar voices, then log the adjustments you make when you enter certain environments. Once your smart hearing aids “learn” the best adjustments for various situations, they can make these changes on their own. All this happens automatically, which saves you from visiting the audiologist for frequent adjustments or constantly monitoring and updating your preferences on your computer or phone. Some hearing aid manufacturers are even using machine learning on a bigger scale: collecting anonymous usage and environmental data, analyzing it to determine usage patterns, and providing software updates to all customers to optimize the hearing experience for everyone.
3. Bluetooth connectivity for new communication and control features
In the not-too-distant past, connecting your hearing aids to your phone meant wearing a loop or other accessory. Bluetooth technology now allows hearing aids to connect directly to your smartphone – and other devices like smart TVs and tablets. This means you can stream audio content and phone calls directly into your ears through your hearing aids.
Along with enhanced connectivity comes the ability to control your hearing aids through an app. This means you can adjust volume levels from your phone, rather than having to fiddle with tiny buttons and dials on the hearing aid itself. Select a sound environment – a crowded restaurant, for example – and the app will adjust your audio settings to match that environment. The newest apps provide some exciting bonus features, like converting speech to text or translating speech into other languages.
New connectivity also means some hearing aids can communicate with your audiologist to provide remote troubleshooting fixes, with no need for an office visit.
4. Rechargeable batteries to avoid the hassle of disposables
Traditional hearing aids require a constant supply of tiny button batteries, which can be a headache to maintain. Many hearing aid manufacturers have now launched rechargeable models. While earlier rechargeable versions with nickel-metal hydride technology were unable to maintain a full day’s charge, newer lithium-ion batteries provide up to 30 hours on one charge. After a day of use, pop your hearing aids into their charger, and they’ll be ready to go the next day. Some models even offer portable charging cases (like the ones for wireless earbuds) to charge on the go. While rechargeable hearing aids tend to be more expensive at the outset than those with disposable batteries, you will save some money on batteries in the long run. As a bonus, you’ll help the environment by keeping disposable batteries out of the landfill!
5. Background noise reduction for a smoother hearing experience
Background noise is a key concern for people with hearing loss. With older hearing aids, quiet speech sounds could get lost in the background, and straining to hear voices in a crowded place led to listening fatigue. Today’s hearing aids feature faster processing and the selective use of directional microphones, which helps to enhance speech and other helpful sounds while muting general background noise. When you set up your new hearing aids, your audiologist will be able to program background noise reduction based on your unique level of hearing loss. This allows you to hear and participate fully in every conversation – even in a noisy environment – with less effort.
6. Own-Voice Processing to make your voice sound more natural
If you’ve used an older version of a hearing aid, you may have noticed that your own voice sounded artificial or louder than other people’s voices. This is because when the ear canal is blocked by something—even a hearing aid—the sound that enters the hearing aid processor from inside your body is different from outside sounds, and the output back into your ears became loud and unnatural. For many people, the experience of hearing their own voices like this was enough to make them stop using their hearing aids. Newer hearing aids with Own Voice Processing can detect and separate out the sound of the wearer’s voice, independently process it, and send it back with a more natural sound without changing the sound of other people’s voices.
7. Health and fitness tracking to help you reach your goals
Some newer hearing aid models provide features typically found in fitness trackers, like heart rate monitors, blood pressure readings, energy expenditure, and body temperature analysis. Certain brands have 3D motion sensors to keep track of your steps and other fitness goals. With these features built into your hearing aids, you can ditch the pedometer and heart rate monitor and have your hearing aids send your fitness information right to your smartphone.
Some hearing aids can even track your social engagement: detecting when you speak to other people to help you monitor your level of interaction with people around you. Since loneliness is a key risk factor for serious physical and mental health problems, it can’t hurt to have a little boost to remind you to keep socializing.
8. Fall detection as an added safety feature
People with hearing loss have a higher risk of falling. Hearing aid manufacturers have taken steps to address this when designing new hearing aids. Devices with fall detection technology chirp when they sense that you may be about to fall, and while they can’t stop you from taking a tumble, they can connect to your phone to call 911 or text your pre-selected contacts if you do. For this feature to work correctly, your hearing aids need to be within range of their paired phone.
9. Smaller size for more discreet amplification
If you’re like many people with hearing loss, you may be worried about the look of hearing aids. Older hearing aids were often large and noticeable, often making wearers self-conscious. Today’s improved technology means that hearing aid companies can fit more powerful sound processing technology into smaller devices. Most manufacturers offer models that are in the ear (ITE), completely in the canal (CIC), or invisible in the canal (IIC). They are not for everyone, as the size of the ear canal and the degree of hearing loss limit who can wear them. Luckily, behind-the-ear (BTE) models have come a long way from the beige clunkers of yore: new devices are constantly becoming smaller, sleeker, and more discreet. When you shop for hearing aids today, you’ll find a range of options that are powerful yet less visible than ever.
10. Airpods Pro as makeshift hearing aids
Apple’s high-end earbuds – AirPods Pro – now offer some hearing aid functionality. AirPods Pro are not FDA approved for use as hearing aids, but their new features allow people with mild hearing loss to use them as makeshift hearing aids to pick out and amplify quiet voices and tune out background noise. Within the settings for your Airpods Pro, you can customize your audio setup using an audiogram from your audiologist or from Apple Health. Your AirPods Pro will use this data to match your amplification to your level of hearing loss. While they work in a pinch, Airpods Pro can’t compete with hearing aids: battery life is only 4.5 hours per charge, and amplification of high-pitched sounds is not as natural as with traditional hearing aids.
Hearing aids have come a long way from the clunky devices of the past. Even modern entry-level models have better sound quality and customization options than older hearing aids. Better technology means a more natural listening experience with less fatigue in noisy situations. For added features like rechargeability and health and fitness tracking, you’ll end up paying more for higher-end models. Make sure you speak with your audiologist to find the option that’s best for your level of hearing loss and your budget.