Do you struggle to keep track of conversation in a crowded room, hear your grandchildren laugh, or enjoy birdsong? You could have age-related hearing loss – aka presbycusis. The condition, caused mainly by the decline of sound-wave-detecting hair cells in the ear, affects two in five of us aged 50-plus and almost four in five by the age of 70, according to charity Action on Hearing Loss.
Despite hearing loss being the most common age-linked sensory impairment, research by Anglia Ruskin University suggests that almost one in five adults waits four to five years before seeking professional help.
‘There’s something about visiting an audiologist that (wrongly) spells “old” in a way that visiting the dentist or optometrist doesn’t,’ says Peter Sydserff, president of the British Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists.
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The earlier you tackle hearing loss, the better, and today’s smart hearing aids, cochlear implants and other wireless devices make your listening experience as natural and comfortable as possible – a far cry from those old, whistling, beige-banana aids that scream ‘medical device’.
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Aids work by amplifying sound, and the newest models are generally stylish, often fitting inside your ear discreetly and fine-tuned to reduce distracting background noise, reacting to your environment, hooking up to your mobile, and much more.
What’s the latest?
The Virto V from Phonak samples the noise around you thousands of times a second and adjusts its setting accordingly. If you’re in a noisy restaurant, for instance, it will switch to a directional setting that picks up sounds mainly coming from in front of you, while suppressing other noise – allowing you to hear your dining partner.
The Alta2 from Oticon’s super-fast speech processor mimics the way your brain understands speech. This helps distinguish the soft sounds that make up three-quarters of normal speech – something beyond most hearing aids.
Smart hearing aids that double as wireless headphones for media devices include LiNX² 5 from GN ReSound, which works with iPhones, iPads and iPods, enabling you to listen to phone calls hands-free, music and videos. The Halo from Starkey is similarly Apple-compatible and works with some Android phones.
Disposable extended-wear hearing aids don’t need cleaning or maintaining and you simply throw them away when the battery runs out. Phonak’s Lyric is growing in popularity and sits, virtually invisible, just 4mm away from your eardrum for greater clarity of sound, and stays put for three to four months. It can also be programmed to mask tinnitus, which often accompanies hearing loss.
The EarLens Contact Hearing Device is a particularly innovative device that picks up sound waves and converts them into infrared light, which turns into vibrations as it hits the eardrum via a miniature pad. Since light travels faster than sound this reduces any echo for the user. The device has received Food and Drugs Agency approval in the US and is expected to hit the UK in about a year.
Bone-anchored hearing aids (BAHAs)
These are a good alternative to conventional hearing aids if you have mild-to-moderate hearing loss and ordinary aids aren’t effective, perhaps because chronic ear infections or operations have damaged the eardrum or outer-ear mechanisms.
A small ‘press-stud’ is implanted in the mastoid bone, behind the outer ear, to which a sound processor is anchored in a short operation done under local anaesthetic. Sound passes via bone vibration directly to the cochlea.
What’s the latest?
The Baha 5 Sound Processor from Cochlear enables you to stream sound from your iPhone, iPad or iPod, enjoy films, TV and music and make video calls.
If hearing aids no longer work for you or you have profound or severe hearing loss in both ears, you could benefit from a cochlear implant (CI).
A receiver is placed in the inner ear, under general anaesthetic, while an external processor is worn on the head behind the ear. The processor sends sounds to the receiver, which transmits them directly to the brain, via the cochlea’s auditory nerve. Surgical techniques that help preserve residual hearing, and the advent of more discreet speech processors that offer better sound clarity, have made CIs much more popular in recent years.
What’s the latest?
Like the Virto V hearing aid, the Nucleus 6 sound processor from Cochlear – hailed as the world’s smallest such device – scans the sound around you and automatically adjusts its settings. Advanced Bionics’ Neptune CI sound processor is fully waterproof, allowing you to swim, surf or snorkel and still hear. The USP of the Synchrony Cochlear Implant System by Med-El, meanwhile, is that you can have a high-definition MRI scan without the CI having to be surgically removed first.
Med-El also offers the Vibrant Soundbridge and the Samba Audio Processor. The Soundbridge is fitted in the middle ear, for people with more moderate hearing loss. Then you use the audio processor to control its directional microphones to tune out background noise, for example. Bluetooth technology connects to your mobile or MP3 player.
Then there are devices that combine a CI for high-frequency sounds (such as women’s and children’s voices) with a hearing aid to amplify low-frequency sounds (thunder, crashing waves, bass drums). They are useful if you suffer from high-frequency hearing loss but have residual hearing in the lower frequencies. Models include Med-El’s Electric Acoustical System and Cochlear’s Nucleus-Hybrid Implant System.
Assistive listening devices (ALDs)
These days you can augment your hearing aid or implant with wireless gadgets and gizmos designed to boost hearing as and when needed – during phone calls, one-to-one conversations in crowded rooms or when trying to hear PA systems.
What’s the latest?
The Roger EasyPen is billed as the most stylish and easy to use ALD. It consists of a ‘smart’ wireless microphone hidden in what looks like an ordinary pen that you can place on a table for meetings or dining out, or you can ask a companion to wear it while you are chatting. You’ll also need to buy a Roger receiver compatible with your hearing aid.
Heard it on the grapevine - what's coming for hearing aids
These forthcoming innovations could improve hearing health still further.
Insect-inspired hearing aids
University of Strathclyde scientists are developing a prototype hearing aid inspired by a tiny, yellow, nocturnal fly native to the southern US and Mexico that has an incredible ability to focus its hearing on a particular source, zoning out other noise.
The next five to ten years should see the launch of new medicines to combat or block damage to the ‘hair’ cells in the ear, including that caused by loud noise and as a side effect of certain drugs.
That is, wearable technology worn in the ear. Ear buds, through which you can play iPods and the like, won’t boost your hearing health exactly, but they will make sure you’re in good shape generally, by measuring temperature, blood pressure and heart rate.
NHS or private?
If you opt for an NHS hearing aid, you’ll be getting some of the best technology available, according to the charity Action on Hearing Loss. However, you will usually receive only one aid, for one ear, and even that is becoming a postcode lottery. North Staffs Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) recently stopped issuing hearing aids to people with mild hearing loss, and more CCGs are expected to follow suit.
Going private will open up your options, including special features and wireless add-ons. But you can expect to pay from £1,000 to £3,000-plus.
BAHAs and cochlear implants are available on the NHS, as long as you meet certain criteria, but hybrid and assistive listening devices are not.
Find out more
For advice on hearing loss, hearing aids and other equipment and issues, visit the Action on Hearing Loss website: www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk
To find a hearing-aid dispenser in your area, try the British Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists www.bshaa.com
For your nearest centre for cochlear implants, BAHAs and other devices, go to the Ear Foundation earfoundation.org.uk
Selected branches of Boots and Specsavers, and Hidden Hearing all offer free hearing tests.
This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of Saga Magazine. For great articles like this, subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.