How have hearing aids evolved?
Understanding the tech
When you think of hearing aids, you might think of big, bulky devices from days gone by. But today, that couldn’t be further from the truth. With digital technology at our fingertips, modern hearing aids are small, discreet and designed to meet nearly every level of hearing loss.
How hearing aids have improved
Hearing loss is not a modern condition, it’s a natural part of ageing, so it’s no surprise that our ancestors had to find ways to keep up with conversations over the candlelit dinner table.
The first known ‘ear trumpets’ were created in the 17th century, becoming commonplace by the late 18th century. These bulky items would collect sound waves and transmit them into the ear down a funnel.
Electric hearing aids
The first electric hearing aid, the ‘Akouphone’, was developed in 1898. It used the same carbon transmitter technology found in early telephones and microphones, the downside was it was too bulky to be carried around, so users had to sit at a table if they wanted the benefits.
As time went on hearing aids became smaller, smarter and more convenient – here we take a closer look at some specific developments.
Early hearing aids amplified all noise around them making it pretty hard to decipher what was being said in busy environments or to address different types of hearing loss.
In 1982, the City University of New York created the first all-digital hearing aid, but it wasn’t until 1987 that computer chips were small and fast enough to allow the launch of the first commercial digital hearing aid.
Digitalizing hearing aids meant that the internal computer chip could be programmed to amplify certain tones and pitches that the user struggled to hear, as a result, their ability to hear was improved significantly compared to the analogue hearing aid which only provided a general amplification of all sounds.
As digital technology improved further, it allowed a hearing aid to assess and make complex decisions about a sound environment. Today’s hearing aids can process sounds in the most appropriate way for the individual hearing aid wearer based on their hearing needs.
This processing helps with everyday listening but is particularly important in difficult listening situations such as background noise or if the wearer is moving. The hearing aid automatically makes any adjustments necessary which means new hearing aids are more discreet than ever.
Size and comfort
By the 1950s the ‘transistor revolution’ had led to major improvements in hearing aid technology. By replacing vacuum tubes (which were fragile and often overheated) with smaller, more efficient transistors, hearing aids shrank in size and required less battery power – but they were still bulky by today’s standards.
Hearing aids continued to get smaller and more efficient using digital technology in the 1980s, but it was 2003 that marked the dawn of the modern hearing aid with the launch of receiver in the ear hearing aids. This made hearing aids even smaller and more discreet than before.
Bluetooth® technology has the ability to improve the signal-to-noise ratio and eliminate feedback from the microphone because the signal bypasses the microphone and directly enters the hearing aid’s processor. A Bluetooth® connection is also less likely to experience interference.
Many hearing aids now come with smartphone apps, allowing the wearer to make adjustments to volume etc, contact their hearing aid provider, and monitor battery life. The apps also work like assistive listening devices, by routing phone calls or streaming sound from smartphones, iPads/iPods, TVs, car radios or any other Bluetooth® technology directly to their hearing aids.
Rechargeable hearing aids have been around for decades but it’s only recently that the technology has improved to make them a viable alternative to battery-powered devices.
Operating time per charge, time to charge, battery life and ease of use have all been a key focus. Afterall, if you rely on hearing aids all the time you can’t have them running out of charge halfway through the day or needing hours upon hours to charge up.