(Photo by Andrew Bernier – KJZZ)

Hearing Assistive Technology vendors crowd the exhibition hall at the Phoenix Convention Center

(Photo by Andrew Bernier – KJZZ)

At the Oticon exhibit, virtual reality simulates visual and audio sensory comparing a traditional hearing aid to their new hearing aid technology while sitting in the middle of a long, crowded dinner table.

When it comes to hearing, we usually don’t think about it until it starts going away. For those who are hard of hearing, new innovations in audiology recently exhibited in Phoenix offer new options for those often missing out on conversations.

Leading audiologists and hearing aid companies from across the world converged on the Phoenix Convention Center recently to demonstrate new research and technology for those who are hard of hearing.

“We have an exhibit hall where we do have the manufacturers share a lot of different technology and products that might be helpful in going back to one’s practice or research,” said Josecelyn Martin, program chair of Audiology Now 2016. “But you’ll also find sessions about things like neuroanatomy, and auditory processing disorders, balance function, cochlear implants, hearing aids. There’s so much.”

Sleek hearing aids were displayed across the exhibit hall floor from dozens of vendors, some of which are able to connect to other technology.

“Bluetooth headset technology is sort of merging with the hearing assisting technology so that a lot of our patients now are listening to music and streaming their phone calls through their hearing aids,” Martin said. “Hearing aids themselves get smaller all the time, they get more powerful, they can do more and better things in difficult listening environments.”

That’s a big deal for patients, said audiologist Ron Miller, owner of the Valley’s Southwest Hearing Center.

“The primary challenge that I see with most people with hearing loss is that it’s the only condition I can think of where they can be isolated while visiting with company in their living room,” he said. “So anything we can do to help them to feel confident in communicative environments, the better.”

Miller said when people with hearing loss strain to focus, it can lead to bigger problems.

“The brain has to work much harder for an individual who has hearing loss that does not have hearing devices,” said Miller. “There is a strong correlation between untreated hearing loss and dementia in many of our older patients. So anything we can do to help the brain to focus, to not have to exert so much effort, it’s far better.”

Danish company Oticon touted its new technology at a very large display area. Tomas Bherens, Oticon’s head of audiology, explained how this is a big step up for hearing aids.

“It’s 50 times faster and more powerful in terms of the computation,” Bherens said. “It’s much more precise than technologies we had before, so we now have processing of sounds in 64 frequency channels which allows us to divide speech and noise into very narrow slices that we can then control when we need to reduce the background noise.”

Most hearing aids typically receive signals wherever a person is facing, drowning out surrounding sounds. Bherens said hearing omnidirectionally while reducing background noise has been a big challenge for hearing aids as background noise is very intrusive. Bherens said the new technology reduces stress on the brain by 20 percent. Oticon determined this by measuring a patient’s pupil diameter. The wider a patient’s pupil, the more cognitive activity.

“In addition to lowering that stress, we can enable people to remember more, approximately 20 percent when they use this new technology compared to our former technologies,” said Bherens. “But it’s that reduction in load that noise puts on the brain is available for people to do something else, like remembering more or engaging in conversations.”

Bherens said the new technology also includes twin-link radio, which he said does more than just connect to music.

“This new smart connectivity could send you a notification whenever there’s somebody at your door, whenever your phone is ringing and you don’t have it on you,” Bherens said. “So as long as your smartphone is in range, you can get messages from activity in the environment.”

Bherens said Oticon hopes future technology allows users to see how their hearing aids are processing sound through a smartphone app. Miller said while what hearing aids are able to do is important, when they are worn may be even more critical.

“Wearing hearing devices is not going to prevent the hearing loss from worsening,” said Miller. “If a person is treated early in their hearing loss, they’re keeping that nerve pathway from the ear to the brain stimulated and it enables them down the road to have better benefit from hearing devices.”

Martin pointed out while technology innovation is important, there are other things to consider.

“It’s also really about involving the individual person in taking ownership of what’s going on for them and helping them to lead where they’re going,” said Martin. “It’s involving their family in helping to create whatever is going to be the best treatment plan for them.”

Although the level of background noise at the audiology conference was ironic, it appears the future of hearing assistive technology looks — and sounds — pretty good.

Audiology Innovators Showcase New Hearing Technology In Phoenix

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