IM this article to a friend!

November 15, 2003

Now ear this...

From: The Age, Australia - Nov 15, 2003

By Nicole Manktelow

Sleek, hot pink and crammed with enough audio wizardry to rival home theatre systems - in time, these little beauties will even use Bluetooth to answer your mobile phone.

They hardly sound like hearing aids at all, but developers are hoping state-of-the-art devices will help change attitudes towards hearing loss and impairment.

The latest programmable devices are smart enough to automatically adjust for noisy or quiet environments, suppress unexpected loud sounds and use directional microphone systems to help the wearer listen to the person they're chatting with - and not be swamped by other sounds in the room.

The Swiss manufacturer Phonak has even created remote controls, some embedded within wristwatches, so users can discretely adjust programming for concerts or other occasions.

High-tech touches, slim design and a range of colour options are a far cry from bulky, old-fashioned earpieces, which experts suspect contribute to the list of reasons sufferers often avoid seeking help at all.

Of a group of older Australians, tested as part of the Blue Mountains Eye and Hearing Survey, 39 per cent had a measurable hearing loss. However, only 13 per cent were wearing a hearing aid, says Professor Philip Newall, co-ordinator of Audiology at Macquarie University.

"We found a lot of evidence that they had difficulties in wearing them," Professor Newall says.

Hearing aids have suffered a reputation for poor performance, amplifying unwanted sounds, producing feedback or becoming clogged - especially those worn within the ear.

"In the past, hearing aids amplified the sounds that clients didn't want to hear as well," explains Louie Papas, the audiologist at Phonak.

These days, top-of-the-line models can split incoming sounds into 20 frequencies and adjust these as music lovers might tweak a graphic equaliser.

"If a loud truck goes past it can be very painfully uncomfortable, or if a baby starts yelling, the client would have to adjust their aid. In the Perseo [Phonak's flagship device] it automatically amplifies soft sounds and suppresses loud ones," Papas says.

A feedback canceller stops unwanted squealing when near other speakers and an occlusion management system helps to make the sound of one's own voice more natural.

With the addition of the wireless networking technology Bluetooth, recently announced in Germany, it means a hearing instrument can even take on the duty of a mobile hands-free headset.

The Bluetooth component is expected to reach Australian users some time next year. It will be added to a separate FM receiver module. As long as the Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone is in range (about 10 metres) users will be able to answer the call without touching their earpieces.

"Until now, the mobile phone has been a big problem, as you can get interference," says Papas.

With the Bluetooth connection, "there's also the option to turn off the other noises and just listen to the caller's voice, which might be good in a noisy coffee shop".

Clearly, the technology has come far in a few years, but it doesn't come cheaply. Health funds can contribute a little to the cost, but for digital hearing instruments, this can be anything from $2500 to more than $5000, depending on the needs of each person.

Hearing loss will sneak up on many, gradually eroding relationships, confidence and quality of life. If sufferers can afford the price, they're buying more than just the latest gadget.

There's value day-by-day in "just going to the supermarket and being able to understand the cashier or being able to talk to your kids", says Phonak acoustician Peter Wohlfahrt.

Hearing aids should last about five years, or longer in the case of behind-the-ear models, which survive better being worn outside the body.

Hearing impairment is more common than dental cavities. Experts estimate 17 per cent of the population - and nearly half of those over 55 years - have a loss.

Experts and device manufacturers are hopeful that trends such as wearable technologies and the proliferation of wireless gadgets and mobile accessories will make ear-based devices more acceptable.

Role models could also help budge outdated perceptions, but candidates are hard to find.

"There is a rather prominent Australian politician being very quiet about their hearing loss," Newall says. "In the US, presidents Clinton and Reagan had hearing aids - and they talked about it."

Copyright  Â© 2003. The Age Company Ltd