Necessary feedback: Innovative hearing aid technology is more vital than ever in era of omnipresent masks, 6-foot spacing

It’s sure to be happening between a local cash register attendant and a shopper right now, as it has happened to us all on occasion during the pandemic:

The awkward tennis match rally of “what was that”s, “excuse me”s and “once more”s — interspersed with any combination of apologetic remarks you can think of — occurring when two people can’t properly hear each other behind the muffle of masks.

Eric Branda. (Signia)

Whether you consider yourself a lip reader or not, you’ve done it since the moment you first opened your eyes, according to Eric Branda, director of audiology at Piscataway-based hearing aid company Signia.

“From the time we’re infants, we’re looking at peoples’ mouths as they’re talking to us; we’ve learned to associate sounds with the lips moving,” he said. “When we start to put on masks, we lose the ability to lip read.”

Hearing aids are in new demand as people lose both visual cues as well as acoustic cues. An unintended effect of these necessary facial coverings during the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 virus is that they drown out softer consonant sounds.

Branda said that, the more strongly protective the mask, the more that seems to hold true. He added that, when you have protective gear such as an N95 mask on, it can reduce by 12 decibels the sound of conversational speech, which is around 60 decibels.

“Then you have to add in social distancing,” he said. “When you start to double the distance we’re standing away from each other, we see another 6 (decibel) decrease in the sound being received by a listener. All this makes it hard for people without hearing loss, and those with hearing aids, but definitely for those with hearing loss that’s untreated.”

The upshot is this: Hearing loss might be harder to hide, but hearing aids are easier to hide.

For those who value it, these devices can sometimes appear basically invisible. That’s been the trend in hearing aids for many years, miniaturization of these devices. But, more recently, these devices have taken even larger leaps technologically.

Branda said even he often finds himself impressed by the latest innovations of hearing aid developers. His own company, Signia, is the main brand of the WS Audiology conglomerate created from a $8 billion merger last year between Sivantos, once Siemens Audiology Solutions, and another hearing aid brand, Widex.

More than just making hearing aid devices smaller and more cosmetically attractive, the sector’s manufacturers (and New Jersey happens to be a hot spot for those) are building hearing aids that can hone in on particular sounds and eliminate others.

Branda said hearing aids are now capable of analyzing environments, tuning to specific areas to boost sounds (such as muted areas of a mask-wearer’s speech) and even detecting motion.

“If I’m sitting in a cafe or a noisy restaurant — not that we’re doing much of that in current times — I want to be able to focus on who is in front of me and suppress the noise around me,” he said. “But, if I’m in that same environment and I get up and start walking, I need to be more spatially aware. So, the hearing aid will know I’m moving and relax its directionality and let me hear what’s going on around me better.”

Heads of hearing aid companies in New Jersey talk about it being something of a misconception that these devices amplify sounds.

Gary Rosenblum. (Oticon)

Because, as Gary Rosenblum, president at Somerset-based Oticon Inc., said — merely amplifying sound doesn’t always help you hear what’s important.

“What (hearing aids) can do, and our devices do perhaps better than anyone else’s, is distinguish what’s important, speech, instead of what’s not important, noise,” he said. “We can reduce the noise in an environment between even the syllables of words. Our processing speed is that fast now.”

Oticon, the United States division of a Denmark-based company, had a product come out just last year that embodies that new technological capability well, Rosenblum said. The company’s new products also feature rechargable batteries, allowing hearing aid users to charge the devices as they would a phone at night for many hours of use in a day.

Another recent advance in hearing aid technology involves the reduction of the buzzing feedback sound, like a microphone placed too close to a speaker, that anyone who has hearing aids or has been around someone with them will recognize.

“That feedback can be very disturbing … and it inhibits your ability to hear well,” Rosenblum said. “We’ve put a technology into hearing aids now called an open sound optimizer. Basically, it reduces feedback before it even gets a chance to disturb the patient.”

Oticon, and Signia, as well, tout the ability of new hearing aids to pair wirelessly with smart phones.

Importantly, during the pandemic, companies are also linking these instruments to the technologies available to doctors of audiology. As Rosenblum explained, audiologists can do virtual visits with patients and remotely fine tune hearing aids that are not always easy to adjust by the wearers themselves.

“We had a product for (wireless hearing aid programming) as something we were piloting in January and February, but we weren’t in a rush to get it out,” he said. “With COVID-19, we fast-tracked the piloting of it and rushed it out, so patients didn’t have to come back into the office and still maintain a doctor-patient relationship.”

At Signia, Branda said telehealth options as follow-ups to hearing aid fittings had been marginally received before the pandemic, as most people still wanted to go into an audiologist’s office. In the past few months, the demand for it has been significant.

The technology of these companies has been evolving quickly in response to the pandemic.

And you can expect to hear a lot more about it in the future.

“We’ve had our hands full in how to be timely and address what’s going on,” Branda said. “We want to keep people hearing better and keep hearing care providers able to better serve their patients.”