“Just Don’t Call Them Hearing Aids” says the title of a technology column in the March 22nd New York Times.
The article is about a new twist in Personal Sound Amplification Products, or PSAP’s, which have been around for quite a while. Now two companies are offering new versions of the devices, which incorporate Bluetooth technology.
But what’s being primarily promoted is not the Bluetooth capability but the fact that they don’t look like hearing aids. They don’t. This is absolutely true. Hearing aids are practically invisible today, whether they’re worn in the ear or behind the ear or both. It’s very difficult to see a hearing aid on anyone – man, woman or child.
What the new devices do look like is a sleeker version of the big old hearing aid your grandfather used to wear. Sound World Solutions’ amplifier designed its product to look like one of those Bluetooth earpiece things you see harried salespeople wearing. Except, as is perfectly obvious in the picture, they have a very visible behind the ear component attached by a clear wire to a large behind-the-ear component. Really, put them side by side with Grandpa’s clunky earpiece and try to figure out why anyone would want to wear this.
Implicit – actually very explicit – in the sales pitch is that hearing aids are a sign of aging and in our youth-oriented society to be avoided. As I’ve said in my book "Shouting Won't Help and in other columns, more than half of those with hearing loss in this country are under the age of 55, so we really should toss out that inappropriate assumption. But beyond that, how is it that glasses can be glamorous -- Sophia Loren wears glasses, for heavens sake – and hearing aids are a sign of aging. Hearing loss is more common than vision problems by the tens of millions.
The article is illustrated with a drawing of a person sitting in a noisy restaurant (at a table all by herself, so I don't see quite what she's gaining from PSAP). The opening sentence reinforces that idea:
"People who strain to hear conversations in noisy places sometimes shun hearing appliances as telltale signs of aging."
But if these devices can really allow you to distinguish a single voice in a noisy restaurant that's something that none of the hearing aid manufacturers or cochlear implant manufacturers have managed to do. I don’t think the PSAP manufacturers have either. But if I'm wrong, if you've tried them in a noisy restaurant and been happy with the result, please write in to the column and tell me.
Like many audiologists, including Dr. Neil Di Sarno, chief staff officer for audiology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, I'm not opposed to PSAP’s for certain uses. As Dr. DiSarno says, it’s important to have your hearing tested before you buy one to make sure your hearing loss isn’t a symptom of something fixable – like ear wax – or something more serious, like a tumor on the auditory nerve. But for someone with a mild hearing loss they may help in a lecture, for instance, or when bird watching or hunting -- places that are quiet and where you are trying to hear a soft sound. It probably even works for talking to your spouse at the dinner table. And they're a lot cheaper than hearing aids.
But if they help distinguish a single voice in a noisy restaurant, that would be truly miraculous and the hearing aid companies would be copying this technology before tomorrow’s paper comes out.