Hearing aids evolve into the world of wireless communications

House Ear Clinic audiologist Allen Senne demonstrates one style of hearing aid.
House Ear Clinic audiologist Allen Senne demonstrates one style of hearing aid.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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Tell the truth: after a lifetime of rock 'n' roll, you're not really surprised that sometimes you don't hear everything, are you?

It might be time for a hearing aid. But KPCC's Susan Valot says it's okay. Today's hearing aids are actually kind of cool!

[Beeping sound of hearing test]

Susan Valot: Ahhh, the dreaded hearing test – the one that might confirm that we're (gasp!) getting older. We'll all lose some hearing the older we get. But that doesn't mean we go deaf, says Mary Adams, an audiologist at Providence Speech and Hearing Center in Orange.

Mary Adams: You lose the clarity of the speech and it sounds kind of like you're muffled or you're talking – people are talking to you with their hands over their mouth, where you're kind of hearing them talk, but you're not really understanding the words, you're not catching the words.

So I'm going to go ahead and play a sample of a conversation, first of how it should sound if you had normal hearing. [plays sample of conversation between man and woman]

And so that should be nice and clear. That's how normal speech should sound like when you've got normal hearing. And now we're going to – we're going to change this. This is what a high-pitch hearing loss sounds like. So I'm going to stop talking. You can listen. [sound of sample conversation, but muffled]

Valot: Definitely a huge difference. Adams says hearing loss leaves you playing Wheel of Fortune – trying to fill in the blanks in every conversation. But today's hearing aids are so technologically advanced, they don't just amplify like the old analog aids. Rather, audiologist Mary Adams says the newer (and smaller) computer chips inside today's hearing aids pick out what you need to hear.

Adams: If somebody's talking to you out on a busy street, the hearing aids now can sense the difference between that truck rumbling down the street and your friend talking to you. And it's going to enhance the sound of your friend's speech. You'll still hear that truck rumbling, but it's not going to totally bury the sound or the speech is not going to get lost in the noise of that truck.

Valot: Today's hearing aid can amplify only the frequencies you need to pick out speech. Allen Senne, the director of audiology at the House Ear Clinic in Los Angeles, says it can also learn.

Allen Senne: And it learns to the point that if you're using your remote control and you make a change in a hearing aid regularly and you make that same change every time you go into that particular environment, the hearing aid remembers that over time. It's called "auto learning." The hearing aid learns where you want it set.

Valot: The new wave of hearing aids come in fashion colors with fashion color names like "fiery temper" or "crème brule." Some are as small as a fingernail. The ads are geared toward active, "I'm not old enough to wear a hearing aid" Baby Boomers. Some companies don't call them hearing aids; they're "personal communication assistants," or PCAs. Audiologist Mary Adams:

Adams: It's not just for hearing. It's for coupling to your cell phone, so now we have Bluetooth-enabled hearing aid systems, so when your cell phone goes off and it rings, you push a button and you're able to pick up the phone signal through your hearing aids. And you don't have to hold your phone up to your ear.

Valot: You can hook your TV into it, so you don't have to blare it to hear it. The hearing aids look like wireless cell phone earpieces; experts hope that'll take away some of the stigma. Audiologist Allen Senne says hearing aids will be key for Baby Boomers. They're retiring later, so they'll have to work with hearing loss.

Senne: If they need to be competitive in their particular professional arena, they're at a disadvantage if they have a hearing loss. And they really need to overcome that advantage. And we have the technology now to really put them back in the ballgame.

Valot: That technology isn't cheap. It can cost about $10,000 for a set of high-level hearing aids. But as sales increase, the prices of Bluetooth-enabled, remote control hearing aids will come down. Audiologist Allan Senne says that's good news for the next generation – the iPod crowd. They might need hearing aids even more.