New hearing aids are far more effective than earlier models

People still think of hearing aids as a flawed solution to correct a hearing problem. Although about 15 million people in Germany have some loss of hearing, only about one of every five of them use a hearing aid. ( dpa )

"Such a device makes an invisible handicap visible," said Juergen Kiessling, professor of audiology at the University of Giessen. This remains the case, although today hearing aids are better than ever in terms of their technological development and their comfort and design.

Family members often have to push people who are hard of hearing to make an appointment to have their hearing checked. Living with someone who has hearing loss can become aggravating because the television volume is always up so loud and because normal conversations have to be shouted.

"At some point the person who's hearing is deteriorating gives in and visits an ear doctor in order to get confirmation that their hearing is normal," said Kiessling. Usually, this is not the diagnosis they receive.

When the doctor prescribes a hearing aid, the device is sent to a hearing aid acoustician, who sets it to the patient's hearing profile. The hearing aid must corresponds with the needs of its owner's lifestyle. An athlete, for example, requires a different device than someone who one to enjoy going to the theatre.

Modern hearing aids use digital technology that transforms acoustic signals into a computer language. This makes the sound not only louder, but also clearer. A digital hearing aid is programmable so that the user's hearing profile and needs can be adjusted using a small computer. The most common designs sit behind or in the ear.

"Hearing aids that fit behind the ear come into question when a person has a high degree of hearing loss," said Kiessling. "For all other hearing difficulties, people can generally choose between the two types of designs."

Hearing aids that fit behind the ear contain the entire electronics in a small casing. Even though they are mostly concealed by the lap of the year and are only a few years old, they are now considered a bit clunky and cumbersome compared with the latest versions, which are even smaller and light-weight.

"The term hearing aid doesn't fit any longer," said Marianne Frickel, president of Germany's association for hearing aid acousticians based in Mainz. "We talk about hearing computers and communication assistants."

The part of the device that connects the casing to the ear is called the otoplastik, an insert for the auditory canal made of synthetic material. It is surrounded by a small plastic tube that conducts the sound from the hearing aid to the ear drum. In-ear devices are characterized by miniaturized technology and compact construction. Depending on the design, they can completely disappear into the auditory canal. Handling these devices demands skill.

A commercially available in-ear device has a soft s-curve. The small end sits in front of the ear drum, while the larger end goes at the opening of the ear. The microphone is on the outside and the sound-emission opening is on the inside. The larger end of the device has a volume control, a place for batteries and an on-off switch.

"Such devices are selected mainly for cosmetic reasons, but they block the ear canal," said Kiessling. This allows more heat and moisture to develop in the inner ear, and high pitch voices and sounds are tinny.

People who are hard of hearing must get used to wearing their hearing aids all the time, said Renate Welter, vice president of the German association of people with hearing loss in Berlin. Welter added that people who use hearing aids should take advantage of the services of an acoustician, including maintenance and constant follow-ups to ensure proper use.

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