Say What?

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New tech in audiology—because hearing matters more than you think.

My husband, 49, says he can’t hear me because I mumble, but I know it’s not me. It’s him. I know this because when we watch TV, the volume is so loud, the sofa shakes. He wears glasses because he can’t see, and yet he refuses to accept that his hearing is an issue, as if doing so would mean he is somehow defective. But the thing is, because of all the new tech out there, there’s no better time to address hearing loss, and not doing so can seriously mess with your brain.

Listen up
A 2011 study out of Johns Hopkins University shows that hearing loss  independently contributes to dementia and Alzheimer’s. And it contributes a lot. “Mild amounts of hearing loss double the chance of acquiring dementia and Alzheimer’s,” explains Gabriel Pitt, audiologist at Optimal Hearing. “With moderate amounts of hearing loss, that risk increases three-fold. With severe degraded hearing loss, it increases five-fold.” Do I have your attention now?

The jury is still out on how hearing loss and cognitive impairment are connected. It could be that people with hearing loss have to concentrate so much harder to process sound than those with normal hearing, essentially overloading the brain, so to speak. Or, people with hearing loss tend to isolate themselves from social situations because it’s just easier, and this isolation leads to cognitive decline. 

There is good news, however. There are studies showing that hearing devices decrease the chance of acquiring dementia and Alzheimer’s. “It’s a very compelling reason to do something about hearing loss sooner rather than later,” Pitt says. 

According to audiologist Susan Timna, every person perceives sound differently.

Can you hear me now? 
“Hearing devices used to be simply an amplifier,” says Susan Timna, audiologist at Audiology and Hearing Aid Services.

“People could either make sound loud or soft.” Today, the devices do most of the work for us. “They have processors like a computer—even though they’re very small—and they can separate speech from noise,” says Timna. 

Digital hearing devices also pair with smartphones. An app allows calls to go directly to the hearing device without any Bluetooth pieces. Patients can also the app to turn their hearing device volume up and down, though it cannot address the issue of background noise.

The digital technology allows patients to personalize their hearing experience to some degree, but Timna takes this to a new level with an in-office sound simulation room—the only one of its kind in Savannah.

“Every person perceives sound differently,” says Timna. “The room makes it so we can program the hearing aids while they’re in a very noisy environment they frequently visit.”

A table and chairs sit in the center of the room, in front of a large mural of people eating and chatting as if in a restaurant. A large-screen TV controls the sound, pumping in music, conversations and clanking tableware from strategically placed speakers. At first the sound is jarring and unnerving—unexpected in a quiet office setting. But as I sit there at the fully set table (patients enjoy an actual meal) it really does feel as if I’m in a restaurant. And for good reason: Timna pipes in recorded reverberant restaurant sounds. Eventually, Timna hopes to create soundtracks specific to local restaurants so that patients can select the locations they often visit.

During my session, Timna gets feedback from patients and wirelessly programs the hearing aid on a laptop. The room also includes a sofa on which I can sit and watch TV to replicate the at-home viewing experience. I suddenly regret not bringing my husband.

Hearing technology is changing lives – and dinner party conversation. Photo by Andrew VonGoellner

Remote control
All this tech isn’t cheap. Hearing aids range from $1,200 to $3,600 apiece. The higher the cost, the more bells and whistles. But not everyone needs the Bentley when the Honda will do. For these folks, Karla McKenzie, audiologist at Coastal ENT, explains that there are a number of wireless accessories they can purchase to pair with a less-expensive hearing device.

These intermediary devices serve as a remote control for the hearing aid and can adjust volume, stream a phone call or even the television, which I’m learning is a shared frustration for many couples. “The remote control allows the patients to change the volume for them, without affecting the volume for their partners,” says McKenzie.

Some patients opt for a remote microphone to better hear their partner. The partner wears the microphone on their lapel and it wirelessly sends their voice directly to the patient’s hearing aid, cutting out the background noise. McKenzie notes this was particularly useful for one of her patients whose wife had Parkinson’s and he was worried that he wouldn’t hear her if she needed him.

Armed with all this important information on audiology, I’m going to delicately breach the hearing issue with my husband. I just hope he hears me.