The world…on a hearing aid

What it feels like to wear tech that actually solves a health problem

Updated - February 13, 2018 01:04 pm IST

Published - February 12, 2018 02:50 pm IST

ReSound LiNX 3D

ReSound LiNX 3D

I walked out onto the road, nervously, self-consciously, as one who has newly been given a hearing aid is wont to do. I have lived half my life, 20 years or so, without anyone really knowing that I didn’t hear very well in one ear. In fact, audiometric tests revealed that while my right ear had normal hearing, the left one had moderate-to-severe hearing loss. (An audiometry test entails a series of blips going from loud to soft, across different frequencies, testing one ear at a time, using headphones). Part of the reason I hadn’t explored getting fitted with a hearing aid was that it seemed unyouthful and uncool. Also, I got on with life just fine, except when someone whispered something into my left ear. I made sure I kept people on my right.

A month ago, I read about personal-health technology advancing so much that ReSound had showcased their newest product, a hearing aid, LiNX 3D, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), in Las Vegas (this was their fifth year there). ReSound is a 75-year-old Danish company that has been in India from 1995, and the reason they were at CES was to show that hearing aids could be cool! In fact, this particular model was named an Honoree in both the Accessible Tech and Wearable Tech categories.

Know the facts
  • There are three types of hearing loss, according to audiologists:
  • Conductive, where the road to the inner ear is blocked, because of congenital reasons or infections. Either medication or surgery is recommended so they can be corrected.
  • Sensorineural, where the inner ear is damaged, which may happen in case of a noisy environment, ageing, certain drugs (like cancer medication). There aren’t many cases of medication working, and the only surgical option is a cochlear implant that bypasses the inner ear, but this can only be done in select cases. Here, hearing aids are a possibility.
  • Mixed reasons, which may be a combination of both, hence treatment is also a combination.

The device consists of a barely-there receiver fitted into the ear canal and microphone and amplifier on the ear. There’s a tiny visible transparent tube that looks like you could be contacting aliens and not just trying to hear the world around. The company’s new LiNX 3D technology does three things, according to M Dattatreya, who heads the Audiology Department, GN ReSound India: it enhances sound quality, can be personalised and reprogrammed by both the user and clinician.

Now, in layperson’s terms

Most hearing aids today are automated, which means that they detect the kind of environment you’re in and take decisions for you. In audiologist-speak, “The signal processing is done by the device. We found the efficiency of the classifier (the technology that decides the environment) could be improved,” says Dattatreya. So their engineers worked on tech that they now claim has a 98% efficiency. Which means if you’re at a noisy restaurant, it will identify that it is a restaurant (because of the acoustic characteristics), not confusing it with a home environment or a theatre, for instance.

That brings us to directionality, or the ability of the device to pick up sounds from specific directions. Again, in the restaurant example, the hearing aid will intuitively know that it’s supposed to ‘listen’ to the person in front and not to the people having a loud conversation behind.

Then there’s the matter of speech understanding, or the ability of the aid to decipher what a person is saying, so that it’s not just the feeling of sound or noise, but you hear actual words.

So does it work?

I found that the world seemed an incredibly noisy place! For starters, when the aid came on, I heard EVERYTHING, from the guy at the far corner tap-tapping away at the computer to someone’s footsteps as they walked into the room. It was almost as if everything was magnified. This could be for two reasons, says Dattatreya. One, there is a ‘hearing-aid adaptation period’, where the brain that has not been getting signals from a ear takes time to adjust, and will slowly begin to filter out sounds that aren’t important to the body. This could take anywhere from 2-3 weeks. Also, each person has their own preference, in terms of setting, and this can take a few sessions to sort out with the audiologist.

The aid can be adjusted in two ways through an app: you can yourself tweak elements like wind control, noise cancellation, volume and focus; or you can put in a word to your clinician via the app for it to be done remotely. Once the adjustment is made, you can either accept or reject it. I didn’t get the device for long enough to test all of these, and I’m sure it takes a couple of months to find a sweet spot.

What also takes getting used to is speaking on the phone. You need to angle it to ‘catch’ the microphone, but after so many years I could finally use the idle ear. The main thing about the aid was the sense of balance. I hadn’t realised it, but I have been inadvertently straining to concentrate, in order to listen.

Sound sense
  • There’s a link between untreated hearing loss and depression, because people who can’t hear tend to isolate themselves, leading to loneliness

The earpiece fits into the canal with ease. The thing is, good tech costs, and at ₹2,63,000 per side (there are less expensive ones too) it’s awful if I dropped it. Its location can be picked up, of course, since it has a near-field communication system, which means you can track its location via GPS. And this one doesn’t even have to be charged (there are chargeable ones too). Whether you buy it or not depends on affordability, comfort and your clinician’s recommendation. But should you get a hearing aid at all if you have hearing loss? Doctors unanimously say yes.

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