Hearing aids have improved a lot

They’re not your grandpa’s hearing aids. Today’s newest models range from the completely invisible — it sits deep in the ear canal for months at a time — to Bluetooth-enabled gadgets that open cellphones and iPods for hearing-aid users.

WASHINGTON — They’re not your grandpa’s hearing aids.

Today’s newest models range from the completely invisible — it sits deep in the ear canal for months at a time — to Bluetooth-enabled gadgets that open cellphones and iPods for hearing-aid users.

Now the maker of that invisible hearing aid is going a step further — attempting a swim-proof version. About 60 swimmers begin testing a next-generation Lyric next month, to see if stronger coatings can withstand at least three swims a week, allowing the device to repel the water that short-circuits regular hearing aids.

If so, expect to see it marketed to active seniors who increasingly find the pool a gentler form of exercise than pounding the pavement.

“It’s my preferred exercise,” says Kathy Burkhard, 62, of San Jose, Calif., who is anxiously awaiting the results. She already swims with her Lyrics, her ears bundled against the water with special earplugs, a water-resistant headband and a racer’s cap. “I do it well and I enjoy it and I wasn’t ready to give it up.”

It’s part of a quiet revolution in hearing technology, to increase the usefulness and comfort of devices that too many people still shun.

“Stigma is one of the biggest obstacles we face,” says Dr. John P. Weigand, audiology director at the State University of New York’s Downstate Medical Center.

More than 30 million adults in the U.S. have some degree of hearing loss. The National Institutes of Health says most could be treated with hearing aids yet only about one in five people who could benefit uses them.

Why? Many people simply don’t know, or accept, that they need one. Hearing loss can come at any age, from disease or genetics or not protecting your ears from loud noise. But it becomes more common with aging; federal statistics show one in three people older than 60 have hearing loss. And it can creep up, as often people first lose the ability to hear higher pitch before they notice wider problems.

Then there’s reluctance to try hearing aids because of the appearance — or because of longtime problems with sound quality, particularly the ability to hear well in noisy environments.

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