The phrase "hearing aid" conjures up images of big, clunky-looking devices that aren't particularly nice to look at. But that's not the kind of device Dr. Ken Smith, an audiologist from Castro Valley, California, procured when he showed up at my workplace bearing GN's ReSound LiNX hearing aid.
When the device launched in Ferbuary, the discreet ReSound LiNX became the first hearing aid in Apple's Made for iPhone Hearing Aids program (two other devices have since entered). Devices in the program use a Bluetooth connection that allows wearers to easily tweak hearing aid settings from their mobile device. The Made for iPhone program also allows hearing aids to stream music, play phone calls, and anything else you might listen to on your phone or tablet.
At $3,200 to $3,500 per unit, these hearing aids are up to $300 more expensive than traditional devices. But they offer a lot of extra functionality.
Smith, who suffers from hearing loss himself, let me try on LiNX hearing aids (with new covers, of course) to get a sense of their capabilities. As someone with normal hearing, all the ambient chattering around me suddenly became super-loud. But a couple clicks on Smith's iPhone dramatically changed the particulars of my newfound hearing abilities.
An app called ReSound Smart lets users adjust the volume, treble, and bass settings on their hearing aids for different locations. Once they've found a setting to their liking, they hit the "Add a Place" button and the app remembers the setting for the next time they're in that location.
When I first put on the LiNX, everything around me—in all directions—was louder. But when Smith hit the button for "Restaurant mode," all of a sudden my ears had a laser-like focus on the conversation happening directly in front of me. I am hardly the target audience for the LiNX, but the device is comfortable and tiny enough that I wouldn't mind having it around in certain loud situations.
There's also a "live listen" function, which effectively turns the iPhone into a remote microphone. Speak into it, and the person wearing the hearing aids will be able to hear you clearly even in the thick of a loud sporting event.
Smith says that the LiNX has changed his life and made the idea of using hearing aids more palatable to his patients. "I think it’s going to impact market penetration greatly," he says. "The idea is to get people younger, with excellent technology. There have already been enhancements and improvements to it."
According to the New York Times, just 14% of the 26.7 million people over age 50 with hearing loss seek treatment. This is partially because a lot of people don't notice their hearing loss, or think it's normal. But there's also an element of wanting to avoid ugly hearing aids.
Since hearing loss is linked to dementia, avoidance of hearing aids can actually be dangerous. Any technology that can make hearing aids more attractive to patients is worth paying attention to.