• By Sara Tiner

Hearing and, most importantly, understanding

November 2, 2020

What? Can you say that again? Sorry, I didn't hear you.

These common phrases are linked to a common problem: hearing impairment.

About 28 million, or 14%, of Americans ages 20 to 69 reported hearing impairment in a nationwide survey. Among those older than 75, statistics suggest about half report disabling hearing loss. To compound the problem, the world is now masked to help stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Without the ability to lip-read, and with the muffling of speech that comes from talking through a mask, hearing impairment can be a bigger problem than ever. Issues such as cost and comfort often keep patients from using hearing aids. Fortunately, researchers are working to overcome those barriers so everything comes through loud and clear. One of those researchers is Michael Cevette, Ph.D.

After decades of seeing patients trying to manage hearing loss — and the steep cost of hearing aids — Dr. Cevette decided to create a better, less expensive hearing assistive device to help patients. Dr. Cevette is an audiologist and researcher of the vestibular system and human hearing. He works with colleagues in the Aerospace Medicine and Vestibular Research Laboratory at Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

Understanding the High Frequencies

"Most people who have hearing loss have high frequency hearing loss due to aging, noise exposure or medications," says Dr. Cevette. The high frequency sounds are the "sss, shhh and ffff" parts of words. So while patients with high frequency hearing loss can still hear, they may not be able to understand, especially if sound is bouncing around, or reverberating, as in a noisy restaurant or gym.

It isn't an overstatement to say that losing the ability to hear is devastating for many. In a noisy restaurant, one might be willing to ask a speaker once, maybe twice, to repeat the question, but after that, most people will just check out of the conversation. Over time, that can lead to withdrawal from social situations and even a label of cognitive impairment.

"Only about 20% of the people who really need hearing aids get them, and one reason is cost," says Dr. Cevette.

To explore options, the Mayo team partnered with a research group that's been investigating hearing technology for 30 years. They began working together in 2013 and tried many, many iterations. One idea was a tabletop speaker. That was dropped due to problems with squealing feedback. Others prototypes have varied in size, shape and technology, but none worked as well as they had hoped.

"Finally, my colleague, Dr. Mead Killion from Etymotic Research came here, and we went out for pizza," says Dr. Cevette. "We went through all the iterations, and all of a sudden we said, 'Hey, what happens if we just hook it ― if we just hook the system over the ear?'"

So they tried it.

The new device is a universal hearing system that consists of a base that connects individual receivers ― microphones ― together via Bluetooth.

Read the rest of the article on Discovery's Edge.

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