Posted by: Jensen Hearing | April 24, 2008

Why hearing aids sometimes suck!!

When your eyes start to go, you have some satisfying remedies. Glasses — a centuries-old technology that costs a couple hundred bucks and is often covered by health insurance — or contacts, which are constantly improving. But if your hearing starts to fade, get ready for sticker shock and frustration. Hearing aids can cost more than $3,000 apiece, they don’t do a good job of correcting the problem, and insurance companies rarely pay for them.

Welcome to the screwy world of ear gear. Because these devices are highly specialized, manufacturers build most of the parts from scratch — their products benefit from neither economies of scale nor third-party innovations. And as a result, there has been little progress in improving three critical components: the microphone, the microprocessor, and the battery.

The woes start with the microphone. Typical hearing aid mics pick up sound from all directions. The resulting cacophony is exhausting for the user, who must concentrate to isolate relevant input. High-end hearing aids add a directional microphone trained in front of the listener, but that increases cost and, critically, bulk.

The microphone feeds a processor, which amplifies certain areas of the audio spectrum according to the user’s particular type of hearing loss. But inevitably, some signals recirculate between mic and speaker, producing feedback — the bane of many wearers (imagine a mosquito inside your ear canal). Digital tech is an improvement over earlier analog designs, but the software remains underdeveloped. The algorithms aren’t very effective, and features like noise reduction and feedback cancellation are offered only in high-end models.

Then there’s the battery, which sacrifices strength — and thus longevity — to fit in a tight spot. Space-saving zinc-air power cells, for example, use air to activate a zinc anode. But once their protective tab is removed, they start making power and don’t stop. So the battery drains even if the device is not in use.

And the insurers? Where are they? Perversely, they don’t pay because the problem is so ubiquitous. Thirty million Americans suffer from hearing loss, so insurers typically restrict coverage to people who are deaf or nearly deaf. Those with moderate loss — that is, most of the 30 million — are tagged for the full retail cost of their devices. Alas, that means many people who need a hearing aid never get one; they can’t afford it.

The news for hearing aid users isn’t all bad. Increased demand from aging technophilic boomers is expected to spur both innovation and acceptance: Researchers are looking to consumer electronics to sex up what has been a medical-device backwater. And now that everyone walks around wearing a Bluetooth headset, the stigma of having a device clamped to your ear is receding. This should drive more adoption, innovation, and (maybe) lower prices.

Source: http://www.wired.com/culture/culturereviews/magazine/16-02/su_hearing_aids

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