AI the new frontier for hearing technology

Imagine a world in which a hearing aid could monitor your heart rate, or even call emergency services.

You don't need to. The manufacturers of hearing aids are rolling out new technologies, making artificial intelligence an increasingly common factor for people being treated for hearing loss.

Hearing Australia's principal audiologist for commercial clinical services, Karen Hirschausen, said a stigma attached to traditional hearing aids had, in some cases, discouraged people from seeking assistance for their hearing loss.

At your fingertips. Hearing aids are increasingly connecting with new technologies. Photo: Shutterstock.

At your fingertips. Hearing aids are increasingly connecting with new technologies. Photo: Shutterstock.

The devices of yesterday had a reputation for being big, clunky, picking up sound indiscriminately and making the wearer look (and feel) ancient.

Karen said significant strides forward in technology meant this was no longer the case.

"Hearing aids are much smaller and much more sophisticated than they have ever been," she said.

"They're essentially tiny computers now that can analyse different listening environments.

"There will be a lot of people walking about with hearing aids in and you won't know because they are so discreet."

Many modern hearing aids are fully automatic and capable of micro-second adjustments to cater for different listening environments.

"Several years ago, digital sound was introduced to hearing aids, and that did make a big difference over analog sound.

"It was much more natural sounding, much clearer, much crisper," Karen said.

Battery changes were notoriously tricky in some of the older models, creating more of a challenge because many of their users were older people with dexterity problems.

Many hearing aids are now rechargeable, just like a mobile phone.

Adjusting settings has also been made easier, with apps developed that can control aids from a smartphone.

There is a variety of hearing aid options, each offering better solutions for individual needs than others.

In choosing the best hearing aid for each client, Karen said Hearing Australia would talk to people about their day-to-day routines, the environments they were habitually in and what technologies they use, such as phones, tablets or laptops.

However, the real technology breakthrough of the last few years has been the incorporation of Bluetooth technology into hearing aids.

"Bluetooth in hearing aids has been a real game-changer for a lot of people," Karen said. "Your mobile phone can be streamed directly to your hearing aids.

"If you are attending a team meeting on your laptop, it can be streamed as well."

The technological advancements show no sign of slowing. Artificial intelligence is being worked into hearing aids designs which are currently hitting the market.

These developments include linking to a smartwatch to measure the heart rate from inside the ear.

It could also detect when someone at risk has fallen over and make an emergency call on their behalf. Karen predicted AI technologies would eventually become standard across hearing aids.

Hearing aids' costs vary significantly, but they are likely to set you back several thousand dollars if you are paying for it yourself.

Pensioners, veterans and those who have suffered a permanent hearing loss under the age of 26 can have all of their hearing aid costs covered under the Hearing Services Program.

You can check your eligibility at hearingservices.gov.au.

Costs can also be offset through the NDIS or private health rebates.

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