Many people think of hearing aids as nothing more than little amplifiers that make everything louder. While this was true of early hearing aid models their modern, digital descendants are far more sophisticated. Hearing aids don’t simply increase the volume without discretion. Instead, they are now “smart” enough to determine which sounds the wearer wants to zoom-in on and make those louder and clearer, while suppressing unwanted interference and background noise.
Basic hearing aid components
Hearing aids come in many different styles and models, but they have three basic elements in common:
Sounds enter in waves via the microphone, and are then converted into electrical signals sent through the amplifier. The amplifier boosts these signals as needed, and directs them into the wearer’s ear via the speaker. The sound is conducted by the hair cells in the inner ear, which pick up the enhanced sound vibrations, converts them into neural signals, and sends them into the part of the brain responsible for processing sound. The fewer surviving hair cells a wearer has the more severe their hearing loss and the more powerful a hearing aid they will require.
How digital hearing aids work
Today’s advanced hearing aids utilize computer chip technology to process the sounds routed by their microphones to sort out noise (e.g., wind sounds) from what the wearer wants to hear (e.g., speech). They convert sound waves into numerical codes that include assessment of a given sound’s pitch and loudness. This allows them to adjust the volume and amplify the frequency of desired sounds, and even take into consideration such complexities as wearer needs (as programmed by a hearing care professional), listening environment, and direction in which the wearer is focused. The result of this assessment is transmitted into the wearer’s ears.
The advantage of binaural hearing
It used to be more common for people to wear one hearing aid if they had only had one “bad” ear. Nowadays, hearing care professionals recognize that fitting two hearing aids in the majority of patients offers a distinct advantage over just one. Binaural hearing (hearing with both ears) is how everyone hears naturally. When sounds come in from both ears, they are heard at an increased volume, with enhanced clarity and richness. When normal hearing ebbs the best way to counter it is to replicate natural sound processing by fitting hearing aids in both ears. That way, people with hearing impairment can still benefit from the advantages of hearing with both ears.
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