Hand holding a lightbulb representing hearing aid innovation.

 

It seems like all our devices are getting smarter, stronger, and smaller—well, with the possible exception of smartphones, which are bucking the trend with larger screens. But the latest iPhone models aside, across many areas of technology, devices do more and take up less space.

Hearing aids are no exception, and it’s not a surprise. Though hearing problems have a variety of causes, hearing difficulties are more common among older people—and per the latest numbers from the U.S. census, the American population is aging. According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 37.5 million American adults report having trouble hearing, and since age is a stronger predictor of hearing loss than any other demographic variable, that number is likely to increase.

Of course, if you’re suffering from hearing loss, even one person with difficulty hearing—i.e., you—is one person too many. Better ways to alleviate hearing loss? Bring ‘em on! Here are some of the innovations that are in the works.

Whole-Body Tracking Through Your Hearing Aids

This is so intuitive, it’s one of those “Now why didn’t I think of that” innovations. Devices that offer different kinds of health tracking are almost always worn, and need to be worn close to the body. So, if you’ve already got a device that’s in your ear… do you really need a separate one on your wrist? Nope! Or at least, you don’t with some of the newest hearing aids, which in addition to helping correct for hearing difficulties like tinnitus, will also track your pulse, your physical activity, and a whole lot more. Sure, a wearable like an Apple Watch can do that, but hearing aids can provide you with other kinds of input that can be helpful to monitoring health, like how much time you spend in active conversation or listening. Especially as you get older, your level of social engagement can actually be a key health metric.

Better Streaming Straight to You

Connectivity is the major watchword, as virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa have moved from smartphones to in-home devices without missing a beat. And speaking of not missing a beat (rim shot!), some hearing aids that offer Bluetooth capabilities now allow users to stream audio directly from a device—like a smart TV, for instance—to the hearing aids. This past summer, Google published open-source specifications for Android developers that show them how to use certain channels within Bluetooth to provide uninterrupted audio straight to hearing aids. This kind of technology is helping hearing aids function almost like super-powered wireless headphones, making it easier to enjoy music, movies and more.

Smart Adjustments from Big Data

Similar to how Netflix recommends shows and movies based on what you’ve previously watched, or your Fitbit buzzes to let you know you’ve reached a milestone (or okay, let’s say stepping stone, depending on how ambitious your daily step goals are), your next hearing aid might make personalized recommendations. Several manufacturers are working on hearing aids that will learn both from the adjustments you make and from listening to the places you go. Some take it one step further, crowdsourcing information on how people use their hearing aids anonymizing and then aggregating the data. All this info enables the hearing aids to figure out your preferences and make adjustments on the fly, so that whether you’re watching TV at home or you’re in an IMAX theater (for example), you’ll get the best possible sound.

Look Ma, No Batteries!?

We know, it sounds too good to be true—hearing aids that don’t need batteries? After all, making sure you’ve got spare batteries on hand, or even making time to recharge your hearing aids’ batteries, can be a pain in the, um, ear. While a hearing aid that doesn’t use any batteries at all may seem like wishful thinking, rechargeable battery technology continues to improve. That means longer in-use time, faster recharging, and less worrying about batteries—all in all, not too shabby!

 

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