Hearing aids, in general, make life better for people with mild to severe hearing loss, says W. Gifford-Jones. (File photo by The Associated Press)

Hearing aids, in general, make life better for people with mild to severe hearing loss, says W. Gifford-Jones. (File photo by The Associated Press)

Health: Hearing aids should focus on functionality

Peter Drucker, the management theorist, who wore hearing aids later in life, famously remarked, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” The hearing aid industry would be wise to listen in. For all the big noise about what can be heard when people with hearing impairment are fitted with aids, is an important message being missed?

Hearing aids, in general, make life better for people with mild to severe hearing loss. But has the development of ever smaller technology made it needlessly difficult for people to enjoy the benefits? Does it seem as though the aids are designed to hide, for vanity’s sake, or worse, as if in shame, a hearing disability?

The focus should be on ease of functionality, not the gimmicks that escalate the price for hearing aids beyond the range of reasonable.

Manufacturing a hearing aid costs a few hundred dollars, but a single aid can retail at two thousand dollars each, with most people needing two of them. Companies market products based on attractive warranties, battery life, and connectivity with TV or phone.

But use of hearing aids is often a hard sell, and the prices and high-tech complexities are not the only deterrents.

A study in the International Journal of Audiology notes, “For a hearing-impaired person, a hearing aid is often beneficial, but noise and annoying sounds can result in non-use.” The study found that 91% of participants experienced annoying sounds daily when using hearing aids. Researchers concluded that “improved clinical fitting routines” may be the solution.

For some people, perhaps. But there is something wrong when the hearing aid industry ignores challenges people face as soon as they leave hearing clinics.

Why, for example, must hearing aids be so ridiculously small? They are so small, in fact, that any senior with even minor arthritis in the hands struggles to grasp and place the teeny technology in the ear canal, while nudging its speaker and retention wires into place, and fumbling to find on and off buttons and volume controls no bigger than a tiddle. Compounding the problem, given that seniors have ears that have grown larger with long life, these little bits readily fall out. How much anxiety goes into the search for expensive aids that easily get lost?

Experts say stigma is associated with hearing impairment, making people hesitant to admit the problem. But this stigma stems from outdated societal perceptions that there is something bad about getting older and having hearing loss. It’s time for this to end.

Let’s have hearing aids come to market that are better suited to people who could care less what their ears look like so long as they can hear the conversation. Make these new devices so big that they define new style, offer “bling”, or even, gasp, involve piercings to hold them in place!

Hearing well has important health benefits too. People who suffer from hearing loss tend to develop problems with balance, leading to falls. The absence of mental stimulation from sound reception in the brain can also increase the risk of dementia. And the isolation that often ensues with the development of hearing impairment, especially later in life, is not good for health.

Take the advice of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist best known for his work on happiness, who died last month at the age of 87. He said, “It’s not the hearing that improves life, but the listening.”

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