Whenever Dusty Dorey would join his friends at the Contented Cow to listen to live music, he would need to pause for a moment to adjust his hearing aids to compensate for the noise levels inside the pub.
Now, the 29-year-old said he walks into the suburban Minneapolis establishment like any other patron. The hearing aids automatically mute the din because he has created a setting specifically for his favorite weekend haunt.
It’s one of the features of a new generation of digital hearing aids from Starkey and GN ReSound designed to connect directly with Apple’s iPhones. These sophisticated devices seek to address some of the drawbacks associated with earlier generations of hearing aids.
Though hearing loss can occur at any age, these products are reaching consumers just as the leading edge of the baby boom approaches an age when hearing problems are increasingly common.
About one in three people ages 65 to 74 experience some degree of hearing loss, according to the National Institutes of Health, and nearly half of all people 75 and older have trouble hearing. In total, about 36 million people report some degree of hearing loss, though only about one in five people who would benefit from a hearing aid actually wears one.
“The average hearing aid user is 69 years of age,” said Dave Fabry, vice president of audiology for Starkey Hearing Technologies. “It’s no coincidence the first baby boomers are turning 68 this year. We’re getting ready to have our baby boomer experience.”
The “Made for iPhone” hearing aids are the culmination of an initiative Apple announced at its 2012 Worldwide Developers Conference. The Cupertino giant has positioned these devices as fitting with its emphasis on accessibility. (There are numerous settings to make its phones easier to use for those with visual, hearing and motor control issues.)
It’s hard not to see the development in the context of Apple’s growing interest in health and fitness devices, judging from hires such as fitness expert Jay Blahnik, who consulted with Nike on the FuelBand, and sleep research expert Roy J.E.M. Raymann, formerly at Philips Research.
Apple declined to respond to speculation about its possible entry into wearable devices.
Starkey’s Halo hearing aids, and its companion TruLink app, allow the assistive devices to connect directly with the iPhone via Bluetooth without the need of any intermediary device, such as a telecoil or wireless accessory.
The app allows people to easily adjust the sound settings to the environment. The geotagging feature uses the iPhone’s integrated GPS to trigger customized settings whenever the wearer returns to familiar places — a favorite restaurant, the movie theater, etc.
The app’s Live Microphone feature addresses a frequent complaint among hearing-aid wearers: In a noisy environment like a restaurant, it’s nearly impossible to hear a dinner companion because of all the ambient noise. With the iPhone connection, the user can place the phone in front of the person opposite him or her at the table and use the iPhone’s microphone to pick up the conversation.
This generation of digital hearing aids function like wireless headphones — pulling audio directly from the iPhone. That’s true whether the wearer is listening to a music playlist or turn-by-turn navigation instructions or conversing with Siri.
This versatility is what most surprised Dorey, who was an early tester of the Halo hearing aids.
“I didn’t think about it until I turned on turn-by-turn navigation and it started going into my hearing aids,” Dorey said. “Having it pipe directly into your ears is awesome.”