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by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Researchers at Columbia University have developed a new hearing aid that claims to tune out distracting voices by reading the wearer’s brain waves. People need a difference between the ambient sound level and the level of speech, called the speech-to-noise or signal-to-noise ratio, both abbreviated SNR,  to be able to understand speech. People with normal hearing need a 3 dB SNR, but those with hearing loss need a 7 dB SNR or even a 15 dB SNR to be able to understand speech.

Older analog hearing aids amplified all sounds, so they didn’t help users understand speech in a noisy environment, because all sounds were amplified. But newer digital hearing aids, with directional and tunable features, claim to have solved this problem.

I haven’t seen studies of this in peer-reviewed journals, only claims from the manufacturers. Hearing aid users have told me the costly digital hearing aids are better, but still nowhere near as good as normal hearing.

If the new hearing aids discussed in the report linked above become available commercially, they are likely to cost even more than the latest digital hearing aids, which can cost up to $8,000 for a pair.

Here’s a thought: Instead of requiring people with hearing loss to drop $8,000 for the privilege of understanding speech in public spaces, why not make restaurants and stores quieter? That would make everyone more comfortable in the space, and would help everyone understand speech.

And the simplest way of making a restaurant or store costs nothing: turn down the volume of the amplified background music!

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