A new generation of assistance

Published 9:20 am Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Connecting hearing aids with iPhones could add cachet for aging baby boomers

By Julio Ojeda-Zapata

Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Aging baby boomers, increasingly suffering from hearing loss, often are reluctant to wear hearing aids, which they associate with, um, aging.

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A bit of Apple cachet could change that, and two Twin Cities-based hearing-aid manufacturers are collaborating with the tech giant on a generation of iPhone-connected hearing devices.

These hearing aids achieve a wireless connection with an iPhone or other iOS mobile device directly, much as consumer cellphone headsets do.

Eden Prairie-based Starkey, which is among the world’s leading hearing-aid manufacturers, recently began selling one of the new devices, called Halo.

GN ReSound, a Bloomington-based hearing-aid maker, recently began offering a similar product — LiNX. GN ReSound is part of the Denmark-based audio-technology company GN Store Nord.

Both companies have worked closely with Apple Inc. in recent years to fashion the new class of iOS-compatible hearing aids.

Recent upgrades to Apple’s iOS mobile operating system include audio technology that enables the new hardware, which the device maker is dubbing “Made for iPhone Hearing Aids.” The hearing aids also work with iPad tablets and iPod Touch media players.

The devices use Bluetooth wireless technology, which is what cellphone headsets typically use. Apple’s refinements specific to these hearing aids boost their audio quality while preventing the medical devices’ batteries from being drained too quickly.

This effectively turns the hearing aids into Bluetooth headsets, allowing users to engage in routine tasks such as making and taking calls, listening to music, engaging in video chats and heeding driving-navigation prompts.

Starkey and GN ReSound apps essentially turn the Apple mobile devices into hearing-aid control panels. With Starkey’s app, Halo owners can record audio, use their iOS gadgets as microphones, fine-tune how the audio sounds in their ears and create noise-filter presets for different environments, such as cars and restaurants.

They can even use their iPhones to find their misplaced hearing aids by using GPS.

Dusty Dorey, a 29-year-old Minneapolis software trainer with lifelong hearing loss, has been testing the Halo hearing aid and is delighted with it.

The technology’s high degree of adjustability has allowed him to fine-tune it for situations he finds problematic, such as high-pitched voices or people speaking softly. In the past, he would have needed to visit his audiologist to have such adjustments made.

He’s also impressed with how the Halo app can recall places he’s visited and the corresponding hearing-aid settings, and activate them automatically as required.

“When (Starkey) showed me that for the first time, I was pretty blown away by that,” Dorey said.

The GN ReSound app for use with the LiNX hearing aid works on a similar principle. It lets LiNX users set volume levels, tweak treble and bass settings, and assign automated sound settings to frequently visited places like home, work and favorite restaurants.

Another U.S. hearing-aid company, Chicago-based Beltone, also is run by Denmark’s GN Store Nord and provides a LiNX-style hearing aid with another name, Beltone First. Users control that medical device using a HearPlus app installed on their iOS gadgets.

According to Beltone, the app remembers the places users visit and automatically switches to their preferred settings for those locations. The app also fine-tunes treble and bass, and has a “Find My Hearing Aid” feature.

The iOS-ready hearing aids will not come cheap, typically running into the thousands of dollars.

Hearing-aid users previously had been able to use smartphones, but they needed to use clunky “relay” devices stuffed into their pockets or dangling from their necks to get their phones to work with their medical devices.

More than 36 million Americans have a hearing loss, but only one out of five people who could benefit from a hearing aid actually wears one, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Boomers, the post-WWII generation long associated with youth, are notorious about avoiding hearing aids, often waiting seven years after the onset of hearing loss to seek technical assistance, according to Starkey. About 12 million baby boomers are suffering from some kind of hearing loss, the company estimates.

“By associating our product with Apple, we’re hoping to get hearing aids on people sooner,” said Kyle Acker, Starkey’s manager of education and training.

Such “Apple acceptance” can be a powerful motivator, Acker said.

—Distributed by MCT Information Services