Mental Health and Hearing Loss

Chaos inside
Photo credit: Hartwig HKD

How does the stigma of mental illness affect hearing impaired people? Mental health problems, as well as being their own illness, can be a symptom of physical ailments. According to the Speech-Language-Hearing Association of America, untreated hearing loss is connected to depression and anxiety.

In a study out of 4000 subjects, the rates of depression were higher among individuals with untreated hearing loss. Typical symptoms of depression include an inability to focus; fatigue and excessive sleeping; feelings of sadness or emptiness; an inability to enjoy once beloved activities; feelings of hopelessness, and a desire to commit suicide. These symptoms can also be a sign of an undiagnosed hearing loss.

I speak from experience when talking about these symptoms, and the damage they can cause. Continue reading “Mental Health and Hearing Loss”

Flaunt It Or Hide It? A Future Hearing-Aid Scenario

The hearing-impaired community is diverse, and certainly not of one mind. Such is obvious when it comes to the “debate” that surfaced on one of my Open Ears posts from April, about my personal desire to use hearing aids that are as “invisible” as possible.

Do you flaunt it or hide it?
Do you flaunt it or hide it when it comes to your hearing aids? (Photos by UMHealthSystem and Erik Holfelder)

There are plenty of hearing-impaired people who prefer to flaunt their hearing aids, not only as a way to make their devices a fashion statement — in the same way as most people who wear eyeglasses spend a lot of time selecting just the right, fashionable frames — but also to make a different kind of statement. One commenter on my April post nicely explained the “flaunt them” point of view:

Continue reading “Flaunt It Or Hide It? A Future Hearing-Aid Scenario”

The Highly Reluctant Consumer And The Invisible Hearing Aid

I marvel at the changes seen in the cosmetic design of hearing aids in the last twenty years. Hearing aids are now “cooler” in design, with fancy Bluetooth and wireless capabilities. They are more appealing than ever before–but the stigma remains. Sergi Kochkin rated fifty-three influencing improvements that could potentially persuade highly reluctant users to seek amplification for their hearing loss within the next two years:

Historically, the MarkeTrak survey has focused on obstacles to hearing purchase. We thought it would be of interest to present the hearing-impaired consumer with a number of improvements in four key areas: financial, hearing aid listening utility, product enhancements, and psycho-social changes.

The top influencing factor (for 2 out of 5 people) in the psycho-social category, ranking 15th overall, is convincing the potential consumer that the hearing aid is invisible, or nearly invisible. This strong desire for invisible hearing aids can only be from the negative stigma that society has placed on hearing aids.
Lyric-Hearing-Aid-Compariso Continue reading “The Highly Reluctant Consumer And The Invisible Hearing Aid”

Why Do We Underestimate Hearing Loss?

People wait a long time to get fitted with hearing aids. I’m a good example of this, having hearing loss since birth (we guess) but waiting until my 38th year to do so, after figuring out “something was up” with my hearing when I was 13 or so.
hearingloss_underestimate_i Continue reading “Why Do We Underestimate Hearing Loss?”

Future Ears: What If You Could Have ‘Super Hearing’?

For most readers of this blog, the biggest concern is how to improve hearing that’s degraded over the years, or that’s been impaired since birth, or due to overexposure to loud noises, an accident or disease.

But in the not-too-distant future, the hearing-impaired community as well as those with normal hearing could also be thinking about adding “super hearing” abilities.

I’m not kidding. In research labs today are working prototypes of “bionic ears” that can far surpass the capabilities of even the healthiest human ear. It’s just a matter of time before we mere humans can be augmented with “cybernetic” technology that allows us to hear sounds that the human ear is not capable of discerning, or focus our hearing on a specific spot in order to hear, say, a conversation taking place a football-field’s length away, or even listen to radio frequencies (for a real-life voice in your head that only you can hear).

This is the stuff of science fiction and fantasy novels. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, either the books or the movies, you’ll recall Harry’s handy Extendible Ears. Popular culture also has brought us The Six Million Dollar Man (Lee Majors) of the 1970s TV series, and earlier this year, the remake of Robocop — both almost-dead people given new lives with technology replacing once-biological capabilities.

Blue Ear Deaf Superhero
New technologies and research are turning super-hearing fantasy into reality. (Illustration: ‘Blue Ear’ superhero concept by Marvel Comics)

There’s even the hearing-impaired Marvel Comics superhero, BlueEar, who was created by the media company at the request of a mother whose young hearing-impaired son didn’t want to wear his hearing aids. While BlueEar was limited to a poster and a marketing campaign to promote acceptance of hearing aids by young users, Marvel’s Hawkeye superhero actually did use hearing aids for part of his “career,” after losing much of his hearing during an epic battle with an archenemy.

But enough fantasy; back to reality. Check out the video below which shows how researchers at Princeton University were able to create an actual ear replacement using low-cost 3-D printing that interwove biological tissue with functional electronics.


The researchers still have to solve the challenge of interfacing hard electronic materials (such as the coiled wire that protrudes from the bionic ear) to soft biological materials (i.e., connecting the electronic output to the body’s nerves). The Princeton work shown above is considered a successful proof-of-principle study demonstrating that tissues and electronics can be combined to form hybrid, bionic organs. And the “ear” you see in the video picks up radio signals only, but to add picking up audible sounds is just a matter of incorporating another type of sensor.

The Princeton and similar research is good news for people of the future who may be born deaf, with an ear deformity, and anyone who is severely hearing impaired who may opt to have the ear that nature gave them replaced by a cosmetically identical bionic ear which will provide far better hearing than even the best hearing aid can offer them. Of course, such a procedure won’t be inexpensive; it’s a coming solution for the worst cases.

As a futurist, I get excited thinking about scientific and technological advances like these. People like me with mild hearing loss can regain normal or close-to-it hearing with today’s hearing aids. (I hear well with my hearing aids, but since I still perceive a constant high-pitched tone from my tinnitus, my hearing isn’t what it was when I was younger.) But gazing ahead just a few years, we should be looking at hearing aids that offer better-than-before hearing ability, and additional hearing powers that aren’t part of the standard human capabilities that we’re born with.

So, no, having a surgeon replace my natural ear with a bionic ear isn’t for me — or most of us. (Actually having this available is estimated to be about three years away.) But what I am looking forward to is when future hearing aids do more than just “fix” my hearing problem. Here are some ideas for a hearing aid of the future that would give you auditory “super powers” (without the surgery part):

Hearing aids that have user-directed, super-directional listening “beams” to clearly hear sound from where you’re looking, while noise from elsewhere is mostly blocked out. Many high-end hearing aids on the market today can do this to a degree, but researchers in Australia are working on technology that will improve on this vastly. (This is the kind of hearing super-power that might attract purchases and usage from non-hearing impaired people who often find themselves in high-noise environments. Surely it also will be coveted by CIA agents, detectives, private investigators, and their ilk.)

“Super-powered” hearing aids incorporated into “smart glasses.” Futurist Thomas Frey has described a future where smart glasses like Google Glass (of which there are a growing number of competitors) include augmented-hearing functionality. (“How Google Glass will Disrupt the Hearing Aid Industry?“)

Frey notes that Glass currently has an audio component:

“Glass does not have a typical earpiece but instead transmits sound through bone conduction. The use of this kind of non-obtrusive sound amplification creates the possibility for a device used as a hearing aid for those with low-level hearing loss. … Naturally a number of in-ear attachments could also be attached to compensate for whatever kind of hearing loss issues an individual is dealing with.”

Google Glass attempts to do a lot of things; it’s like having a computer on your face (albeit the computing power comes largely from Glass’ wireless link to the smartphone that you’re carrying). But not all smart glasses need to do so much. I envision a product that combines my eyeglasses and hearing aid into a single unit. Perhaps it would use bone conduction, or an in-ear receiver could be attached by a wire or cord to the glasses’ temples. … But here’s the great extra feature: stereo mini “shotgun” microphones on the sides of the eyewear facing forward, which can be enabled to allow focused hearing on what you’re looking at (to help in those noisy-environment situations I described earlier).

As Frey points out in the article linked to above, the future likely will bring “apps” — like those you can add to your smartphone, or to Google Glass — to hearing aids. Hearing apps might be installed on your smartphone, if it is communicating and controlling your hearing aids; or, in the case of smart glasses with built-in hearing aids, the apps are for the glasses.

Hearing-aid apps? Huh? … There are many, many possibilities. Perhaps you’d be interested in an app that allowed you to turn on police communication within a 1-mile radius of your current location and feed it directly to your ears. Or how about an audio translation app that let’s you understand a foreign-language speaker?

The future really is exciting for those of us with ears — whether they work well or are impaired.

#Earfie: Ears Are Beautiful Too!

Before working for Phonak, I worked in a clinic setting as an audiologist for over 18 years. During this time I saw the inside and outside of many different ears! I am sure that any audiologist who, like me, has had the privilege of testing newborn babies’ hearing, has marveled at their tiny perfectly formed ears.

However, as we grow older, we tend to view ears differently. Our eyes are often referred to as a thing of beauty, but I don’t think I have ever watched a movie where a character is staring at someone else’s ears and whispers “your ears are so beautiful!” But when you think about it, what our ears can do is pretty amazing. I think viewing our ears as precious and beautiful is long overdue. So how can we do this?

At work a few weeks ago, we were taking pictures of new hearing aids on peoples’ ears. We were using our smartphones or tablets for this and I suddenly made the connection that any picture taken of an ear and uploaded to social media websites should be called an earfie — in line with the ubiquitous selfie (Oxford Dictionaries word of the year 2013) and even the belfie, introduced to the world by Kim Kardashian when she posted a picture of her fabulous derrière online. I then found out that the word earfie had already been used for this very purpose, even though it’s not very popular (yet!)

earfie joanielovieearfie hayleymd4earfie rainbow_tubesearfie silentlybroken

Photo credit: from Instagram, click on photos to see who posted them!

I have already seen a fantastic variety of earfies on various sites, some with hearing aids, others with earrings and adornments. I think it is a great way of promoting how beautiful and unique our ears are.

So, why don’t we all take out our smartphones and start posting #earfies at every opportunity? Showcase your ears and raise their status. We may not be able to convince script writers to include romantic lines in films about ears, but you never know, “earfie” might just end up with its own definition in the Oxford dictionary. How cool would that be?

Anna Earfie bw Anna Earfie sepia

To lead by example, here is my earfie. I played around with different effects as I wanted to create an „arthouse“ feel to the picture. One thing I did find is that there is an art to taking an earfie. It is actually quite hard to take a good picture of your own ear. It took many attempts early this morning resulting in an ear covered in hair, or part of it obscured by my finger. In the end, I confess that I had to get someone else to take the picture. However, maybe you can come up with a working method to take earfies, and share the resulting pictures and your method online. I look forward to seeing the results.


Baby Boomers Will Be Sporting More Hearing Devices

As a media futurist, I’ve been pondering what’s ahead for hearing aids since I first got a pair less than a year ago to improve my own deteriorating hearing. “Futurists” can’t precisely predict the future — no one can — but it is possible to identify likely “plausible” futures, or forecasts that are among the most likely to be accurate.

I’ve been thinking for a while that people with mild hearing issues who are in middle age today will begin to purchase hearing aids at a younger age than their elders did. A bit of support for that prediction came this week in a well-done New York Times article, “Conjuring Images of a Bionic Future,” by technology columnist Farhad Manjoo. He wrote:

“It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the latest crop of advanced hearing aids are better than the ears most of us were born with. The devices can stream phone calls and music directly to your ears from your phone. They can tailor their acoustic systems to your location; when the phone detects that you have entered your favorite sports bar, it adjusts the hearing aids to that environment.

“The hearing aids even let you transform your phone into an extra set of ears. If you’re chatting with your co-worker across a long table, set the phone in front of her, and her words will stream directly to your ears.

“… I’m 35 and I have normal hearing. But if I could, I’d wear these hearing aids all the time.”

Most longtime hearing-aid users, I’m certain, don’t consider hearing aids “sexy.” But the new surge of features that turn new models into something “more than just hearing aids” have the potential to become desired wearable-technology devices.

You may be familiar with the term “wearables” used to describe small advanced technology devices that are worn on the body: fitness trackers, smart watches, smart glasses, wearable tiny cameras, etc. Get ready for “hearables” to be the next big thing. In fact, analyst Nick Hunn predicts in an upcoming market forecast that hearables, or smart earbuds, will be a $5 billion market by 2018. Of course, many of these coming-soon in-ear computing devices will not be primarily for solving hearing problems, but rather to provide users with entertainment, information, and communication direct to the ears.

Photo from Warner Bros. Pictures
In the recent movie “Her,” the main character (Joaquin Phoenix) wears a cordless ear device to communicate with his custom artificial-intelligence operating system, or digital assistant.

Now, I don’t expect that non-hearing-impaired teenagers and young adults will begin appearing in public wearing hearing aids. But the coming wave of cordless smart earbuds — no more tangled earbud wires! — using some of the same technology mentioned in the Times article to provide streaming music and phone calls directly to the ears, should sell well to the mass market. That strikes me as a safe prediction. Early devices in that category — for those with normal hearing — are still too visible to others and have short battery life, but it’s only a matter of time before they get better and are made more “invisible.”

What’s more likely (i.e., a plausible future) is that people with still-mild hearing problems will get tested, fitted for, and purchase new and coming-soon models of hearing aids with innovative, dare I say it, “sexy” features, earlier than the generation ahead of them did.

Currently, the average time that it takes a person who first recognizes that his or her hearing is declining to actually purchase hearing aids is about 7 years! (USA-only figures.) That sounds about right; my own experience was noticing some tinnitus and high-frequency hearing loss several years before purchasing my first pair of hearing aids.

Pete, a friend in his late 40s (I’m 57), seemed to confirm the validity of my prediction. I’ve told him about my experience, from the traditional (vast improvement in quality of life since my hearing aids restored the ability to hear birds sing and hold a cogent conversation in a noisy restaurant) to the innovative (how I love walking the family dog with music streaming in my ears and smartphone in a pocket, sans wires). Pete told me that while he had noticed some mild hearing loss, he hadn’t considered exploring hearing aids until he had that conversation with me.

Pete also noticed the Times coverage mentioned above, and forwarded me the article with these words: “I am starting to consider this hearing-aid thing, even before my hearing gets worse. Why wouldn’t I want to hear better than the average person?”

So, as far as “plausible scenarios” for the future of hearing aids, I’ll confidently predict that one is that of those people, especially in the Baby Boom age bracket, who begin to experience hearing decline, the time between recognition of the (still-minor) problem and resolution (purchasing hearing aids) will drop significantly from the current 7-year-average lag.

I hope that this future scenario does play out. It will improve the lives of many hearing-impaired individuals who otherwise would have procrastinated about finding a solution. And, of course, the makers of hearing aids will benefit from a growing customer base with a lower average age than current hearing-aid users. This likely future scenario also could be expected to increase the percentage of people with hearing problems who actually purchase and use hearing aids (which MarkeTrak estimates at only 25%), especially if hearing-aid prices drop due to technology trends and manufacturers getting a much larger customer base.

This sounds all rosy, I realize, but it’s not so simple. Modern hearing aids remain expensive, and millions of people suffer with untreated hearing loss because they cannot afford to purchase them. This is especially a problem in countries like the USA, where health insurance most often excludes coverage for hearing aids. The U.S. Affordable Care Act (better known as “Obamacare”) takes hearing aids into consideration, but most states’ ACA health insurance offerings don’t cover hearing devices, nor does Medicare.

Nations with more-generous healthcare systems (e.g., Finland) don’t leave behind as many poor people with impaired hearing — but even with hearing-aid assistance from a single-payer health-insurance system, the less affluent probably won’t be able to afford to upgrade to models that include “fancy” features such as linking with a smartphone.

Still, this technological revolution in hearing-aid technology should improve what today are some dismal statistics. Indeed, if hearing-aid manufacturers can succeed in making their products “sexy” and thus reduce the stigma that many people feel about wearing hearing aids, perhaps someday we’ll be walking in public and on close observation realize that a large percentage of our fellow citizens also have digital devices in their ears. … That’s a pleasant future scenario.