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Show 1108: Surprising Solutions to Help You Hear Better

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Hearing aids can be extremely pricey, but new research shows some over-the-counter products can help you hear better. So can brain training with an audio game.
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Do you wish you could hear better? Do you have trouble hearing what others are saying? Many people find it difficult to follow a conversation with multiple voices, especially in a crowded restaurant. In fact, by 2060, more than 70 million Americans will probably be experiencing hearing loss. Most of them will be over 70.

You don't have to be a senior citizen to have trouble hearing, but many people are reluctant to spring for pricey hearing aids because they feel it marks them as old. Others just can't afford more than a thousand dollars per ear. What if there were over-the-counter listening devices that could help at a fraction of the cost?

OTC Hearing Help:

Congress passed legislation in August 2017 that will legalize some OTC hearing aids within several years. In addition, there are already Personal Sound Amplification products that may be helpful. These over-the-counter devices are less expensive and not labeled for hearing loss treatment. That means the FDA has not approved them to treat hearing impairment. But might they help you hear better?

A small study reported in JAMA compared the performance of five of these devices to that of hearing aids. The scientists found that three of them were almost as effective as actual hearing aids. On the other hand, one did not help much and the least expensive one was actually worse than nothing at all. Find out more about the research from Dr. Nicholas Reed, one of the scientists who was responsible for it.

Which Ones Helped People Hear Better?

The Oticon Nera 2 brand hearing aid has a wholesale price of $1910. A patient would pay considerably more to have it fitted by an audiologist. In contrast, the top three personal sound amplification products cost $300 to $350: the Sound World Solutions C550+, the Soundhawk and the Etymotic BEAN.

How the Study Was Done:

Forty-two individuals tested each of the six devices in a sound booth with speech babble noise to mimic real-world situations such as a party or a restaurant. Without any device, the participants understood about 76 percent of the test sentences. With the hearing aid, they understood roughly 88 percent. Results for the personal sound amplification devices ranged from 87 percent (for the Sound World Solutions C550+) to 84 percent (for the Etymotic Bean). Any of these might be worth a try for a person who would like to hear better but is uncertain whether hearing aids are really necessary.

Understanding Speech in a Noisy Setting:

Hearing better is important. Understanding what you hear is another challenge altogether. Trying to comprehend people speaking in a noisy restaurant or other situation where there is a lot of background noise can be extremely difficult. However, people can learn to discriminate speech even in these situations by training themselves with a specially designed audio game. Dr. Dan Polley describes the research, published in Current Biology in November, 2017.  The audio game the scientists used is a research tool, not yet available commercially.

This Week's Guests:

Nicholas S. Reed, AuD, is an instructor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head/Neck Surgery and a PhD Candidate in the Graduate Training Program in Clinical Investigation of the Center on Aging and Health at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. For more information on the research he and his colleagues are pursuing, here is the link: www.linresearch.org The photo is of Dr. Reed.

Daniel B. Polley, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School. He holds the Amelia Peabody Chair in Otolaryngology and is the Director of the Lauer Tinnitus Research Center. He is also the Associate Director of the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

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