It’s Friday night and the restaurant is packed. You’re out with friends and you realise that you can’t follow the conversation. You have to keep asking people to repeat themselves. You could get your ears checked… but you’re not old – how could you already have hearing loss?
Many people may unknowingly expose themselves to high-risk situations that affect their hearing health. Young Australians are particularly at risk through exposure to music players, live music venues and nightclubs where noise can reach dangerous levels.
“Hearing disability is truly the invisible handicap, we don’t see the problem, but it has real impact on the everyday functioning of those who suffer it,” says Professor Robert Cowan, CEO of the HEARing CRC, Australia’s hub for hearing healthcare research.
Part of the problem is the view that hearing loss is only an issue in old age. But the truth is that one in six Australians suffers from some form of hearing loss.
“When people have trouble reading fine print, they will generally straight away visit an optometrist or pick up a pair of magnifier glasses from a chemist, because it’s a socially acceptable disability and there is no associated stigma with wearing glasses,” says Cowan.
“But when someone has a hearing disability, they often choose to ignore it, or to blame others for mumbling or speaking too softly, and as a result they postpone assessment and treatment,” says Cowan.
Turn it up
“Hearing patients and professionals would both benefit from new hearing technology that provided a seamless fit into everyday life,” he says.
There’s plenty of new tech entering the market from consumer electronics powerhouses. According to Business Korea, Samsung is intending to develop a product for 2016, while Apple has already joined forces with hearing aid developers GM ReSound.
Hearables, as they have been dubbed, are smart ear devices that feature 3D audio notification. By providing users with real time data, they help to build awareness of exposure to high levels of noise or to noisy environment for prolonged periods of time.
“Noise-induced hearing loss is akin to sunburn, it’s a combination of the loudness (i.e. like the UV rating), the duration of any exposure, and the frequency of exposure,” says Cowan.
Take ReSound’s iPhone-connected LiNX headphones. They connect to Apple products and allow the wearer to hone in on or deflect sounds with the touch of a screen, to dial down the noise around you, or direct the speech focus towards your dinner partners and away from the other table’s conversations, for example.
Tech such as this is increasingly big business. Wearable tech company Doppler Labs announced this month that they have raised US$17 million for its Here Active Listening System, that uses two wireless buds and a smartphone app to control what you hear and how you hear it. They also raised US$635,000 directly via crowd funding.
In Australia, Perth-based hearable Nuheara is the first wearables company to list on the ASX. Their tech, which was launched in June 2014, is a hybrid between assisted listening devices, Bluetooth earplugs and noise-cancelling headsets without cables or wires.
Cowan hopes that this technology will change the way people associate hearing aid technology with old age, and spur them to seek help much earlier.
“We use our phones every day, and new apps that can help us hear or assess our risk of hearing loss can be at our fingertips, changing the way that we provide hearing healthcare,” he says.
“Hearables will increase our connectivity, and allow for individuals to personalise hearing care like never before.”
– Kara J Norton