Rethinking A New Aid For Hearing Loss

17:06 minutes

a doctor putting a hearing aid in a child's ear
Credit: Shutterstock

Have you ever met a friend for dinner at a restaurant, only to have trouble hearing each other talk over the din of other diners? And as we get older, this phenomenon only gets worse and can be compounded by age-related hearing loss and conditions like tinnitus.

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet for tinnitus or other forms of hearing loss, and researchers don’t even understand all the ways in which the auditory system can go awry. But we now have more sophisticated technology to help us cope with it. 

Nowadays, there are over-the-counter hearing aids and assistive listening devices that connect with your smartphone. Certain tech allows you to amplify softer sounds and cancel out the noise of a crowded room—it can even focus on the sound waves created by the person you’re speaking with. 

Ira chats with David Owen, New Yorker staff writer and author of the new book Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World about the industry that’s helping millions of Americans cope with hearing loss.

Read an excerpt of David Owen’s book Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World.

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Segment Guests

David Owen

David Owen is a staff writer at the New Yorker and author of Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World (Riverhead Books, 2019).

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.


Imagine that you and I are sitting across the table from each other at a crowded restaurant, just a couple of old friends catching up. What? Can you say– what did you say? Sorry, I really can’t hear you. Does that happen to you, right? It’s common. You have trouble making out words. You’re not alone. You’re in a restaurant. All that background noise gets in the way.

If you’re a member of the baby boomer generation like I am, that scene may feel pretty familiar, especially if you have a tinnitus in one ear, or both ears. I have it in one ear. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for tinnitus or other forms of hearing loss that come with age, and researchers don’t even understand all the ways in which the auditory system can go awry.

But we now have more sophisticated technology to help us cope with it. These days, there are over-the-counter hearing aids and assistive listening devices that connect, for example, with your smartphone, tech that lets you amplify softer sounds or cancel out the noise of a crowded room, even zoom in on the sound waves created by the person you’re speaking with.

And in fact, so much has changed about the industry catering to people with hearing loss that my next guest wrote a whole book about it. David Own is a New Yorker staff writer and author of the new book, Volume Control, Hearing in a Deafening World, which is out now. David, welcome back to Science Friday.

DAVID OWEN: Hi, Ira. Thank you. That restaurant clip gave me the chills.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, isn’t that really familiar? Right?

DAVID OWEN: Yeah, when I was working on this book, I talked to people. I’d ask friends, how’s your hearing? Oh, it’s pretty good. They go, except in restaurants, and it makes a big impression on people.

IRA FLATOW: And isn’t that one of the first symptoms of having a hearing loss, is that you keep saying, what?


IRA FLATOW: I didn’t hear you. Say that again, right?

DAVID OWEN: Yes, and unfortunately, the average wait time between noticing that you have a hearing problem or suspecting that you have one and then actually doing something about it is 10 years. That’s the average that people wait.

IRA FLATOW: Is that because they think they can just plow through it or that they can’t be having a hearing loss?

DAVID OWEN: I think there are a number of reasons. I think one is that we don’t take hearing anywhere near as seriously as we should. We don’t realize how important it is in our lives. Another is just sort of good old human inertia. And another is kind of the stigma, the perceived stigma of having hearing aids. It’s a sign of decrepitude, hearing loss.

Charlie Rose, back when he was on TV, did an hour long show on hearing and hearing loss. And during that whole time, he never mentioned that he was wearing hearing aids. He had two hearing aids on. And one of his guests, who was a Nobel Prize winning physicist, you could see his hearing aids, and he also never brought it up. So there’s some feeling that it’s somehow shameful or embarrassing to do something to help your hearing.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And something that comes along with hearing loss is, as I mentioned in the intro, that I have a tinnitus, ringing in my ear– one of my ears, my right ear. And that compounds the problem.

DAVID OWEN: Yeah. I have it, too, and I’ve discovered that one of the very worst things you can do for tinnitus is to write a book about it because then you’re thinking about it all the time. Unfortunately, there’s no known cure. Treating it, mostly, involves helping people learn to just to tolerate it, or to mask it with other sounds, or to sort of make it less apparent by prescribing hearing aids to bring up the sound of other things so that the tinnitus is less apparent.

And it is the number one service related health claim made by military veterans. It’s soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan and then back through every war that we’ve fought since the Civil War. It’s been a problem for soldiers.

IRA FLATOW: I guess if you have a rifle on your shoulder, and you fire it, it’s a loud boom.

DAVID OWEN: That’s right. Right-handed infantry men tend to go deaf on the left side. That’s the ear that’s the closest to it, and then it happens in surprising places, too. Violinists lose hearing in exactly the same way, in the left ear. We don’t think of symphony orchestras as being harmful to hearing. We tend to think of heavy metal rock. But classical musicians are prone to it, too. And it’s often not your instrument, it’s the instrument of the person sitting behind you. So it’s the French horn right at your head in the chair in back of you.

IRA FLATOW: And speaking personally, you don’t really– you know the old saying, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone? Because I’m almost deaf in one ear, I try to make sure I protect my other ear from any kinds of loud sounds. And living in New York City, walking down the street, I really find myself cupping my ear, closing it off, putting my finger in it when a truck or something goes by. And a lot of people are just not doing that kind of thing. And we’re exposed to loud sounds all the time that may be harmful.

DAVID OWEN: Oh, it’s so true. I was just watching a football game over the weekend, and the commentators were talking about how enthusiastic the fans are. The sound of the cheering is so loud, the linemen can’t hear the quarterback calling signals. And they actually gave a decibel reading, and it was well above the level that can cause– with sufficient– enough exposure, can cause permanent hearing loss. And it’s not a good thing to be this enthusiastic with this many people. It’s not good for your ears.

IRA FLATOW: But the good news about this now is that we have cell phones and electronic devices that might make up for some of the shortcomings we have in hearing loss. For example, I discovered, because I know so many people who have hearing aids, that hearing aids can now be hooked on to your cell phone and on your iPhone, for example. You can hook it right on there. And then you can sort of slide your cell phone across the table, and it acts sort of like a remote microphone going to your hearing aid.

DAVID OWEN: That’s right. They are very expensive devices that do the same thing, but you can do that. I got my mother– my mother is 90. She’s had trouble with her hearing. She’s been reluctant to go and get hearing aids. So I bought her– I think I spent $80– a device called Super Ear. It is a little unit that’s maybe the size of– smaller than a pack of cigarettes. It hooks to a wired pair of earphones. And she can adjust it and place it on the table. All she has to do is be willing to have this visible sign that she’s not hearing. But she did take it to dinner with some friends, and they passed it around.

And I’ve done the same thing with more sophisticated devices. Go to a sports bar, I have a pair of headphones called Hear Phones made by Bose. And they’re basically, they have the same chip that hearing aids do. But they have a bigger battery, so they have better Bluetooth. They have bigger speakers, so the sound is better. They have noise canceling inside the ear canal, as well as outside. So you can in a restaurant, if we had been in that situation at the beginning of this segment, I could have turned down the sound of the restaurant and focused on you specifically, without putting my phone on the table. And we would have had an easier time talking.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great to hear. Are there any treatments? Because if you’re of a certain age, you hear on TV, you watch commercials that say, oh, there’s this miracle cure for tinnitus.


IRA FLATOW: But there is no such thing, is there?

DAVID OWEN: No. You search for it once on Google, and your email inbox fills up with all these claims of the food you should eat, this thing that doctors don’t want you to know. Don’t let the American Medical Association know that you know about this. Unfortunately, they don’t work. There are some things that people have find that help them.

One, surprisingly, something that sometimes helps me is to simply pretend that my tinnitus, this high-pitched phantom sound in my head is a masking sound that I’m playing to cover up my tinnitus. And that doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does. I’ll turn on a fan, turn on the air conditioner. I have some earpieces that actually play a masking sound, and they help, too.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, some people will put their white noise machine on it.

DAVID OWEN: Right. Right, exactly. And you can get something that kind of covers it. I’ve walked in places where the traffic noise, the just kind of steady hum from an interstate highway was right in the right frequency range to make me unable to hear my tinnitus, or in the fall with cicadas and crickets that’s kind of the same range. And then I hear only them. I don’t hear this phantom noise in my brain that, usually, I only notice when I’m lying in bed or writing about it. Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: The new research on tinnitus suggests that it’s something like phantom limb pain, right? It’s not there, but you still feel it.

DAVID OWEN: I think this is the accepted idea now, that your brain is used to receiving signals in certain frequency ranges. Now you’ve lost the ability to hear those ranges. And so it makes its best guess about what ought to be there. It fills something in. And so there are some treatments that work with some people that involve kind of training the brain to ignore that entire frequency range.

Tinnitus is tricky because it’s not a sound. And it’s not sound waves coming into your head. It’s an electrical activity taking place in your brain. So people at Bose are always asked, well, can’t you make noise canceling headphones that will take care of this? And they say, no, in order to cancel sounds, we need sound, and you don’t have sound. This is something else, but there’s hope. There’s always hope.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You mention Bose– and I think about this a lot, because I cover technology, also. Why doesn’t Bose or Apple or somebody go into the hearing aid business? That they know all about sounds, they make all these phones, and they make the headphones. And there’s a whole bunch of baby boomers and people who are youngsters who getting deaf from all the loud music they’re playing. This would seem like a great business model, you know?

DAVID OWEN: No, it seemed that way to them. And people suggest it all the time. And Bose has actually now has been approved for a hearing aid. There will be a hearing aid coming from Bose. And my Bose Hear Phones is headphones. They can’t legally call them hearing aids, but I can. I mean, they’re hearing aids that I like better than hearing aids.

One reason that these companies have not been involved fully yet is that it’s really hard to make a hearing aid. And they all thought, well, we have the expertise. We’ll get into it. But the processor inside a hearing aid, the circuitry inside a hearing aid, the antennas, it is tiny, and it had to be invented by the hearing industry because there was nothing off the shelf that works.

And so Apple has a partnership with a hearing aid manufacturer, but it took them years to do what they thought they would be able to do just immediately, based on what they already knew. And they’ve all discovered that it’s much harder than they thought it would be.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I always think that there’s going to be new research coming out by the Pentagon. The Pentagon spends so much money. It has so many soldiers that are in combat and suffering all kinds of losses. And from reading in your book, it seems like they know about, as you say, one of the number one injuries in combat is loss of hearing or tinnitus. And they have a way of combating that.

DAVID OWEN: It’s interesting. Military personnel– we have known for years, literally for centuries, that warfare is bad for hearing, that gunfire deafens people, that artillery fire, simply being around in military equipment, military vehicles deafens people. But it’s really only in the past few years that the Pentagon has begun to use truly effective hearing protection devices. Actually, there are hundreds of pending lawsuits right at the moment over what were supposed to be protective earplugs that were issued to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan [INAUDIBLE] they were defective. They didn’t work. The Pentagon knew they were defective. The manufacturer knew they were defective.

And you think, we knew at the end– we knew during the Civil War. We knew before that. We knew in the age of sail that exposure to explosions deafens people. And yet, the focus has always been more on compensation than on prevention. So the Veterans Administration is the largest single purchaser of hearing aids in the United States. But much more money has gone into that than has gone into research to protect the hearing of soldiers.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with David Owen, a New York staff writer and author of the new book, Volume Control, Hearing in a Deafening World. Great book, especially if you think you may have a– don’t want to admit that you have a hearing problem.

And the title is really indicative of the state we are. We are in a deafening world. There are so many loud things around there. And we have a tweet from David, who says, there are also some nice decibel meters available online to improve your awareness.

DAVID OWEN: That’s true.

IRA FLATOW: I have one in my cell phone has a DB meter that I use.

DAVID OWEN: Yeah, one of the difficulties with decibels is that even scientists who understand them have a hard time explaining them. The scale is logarithmic. So 90 decibels is not just a little bit louder than 80 decibels. It’s a lot louder. And I came up with a scale of my own, which is things like whisper, soft voice, chainsaw, rock concert, more items that we’re more familiar with than we are with these numbers that we don’t really– that are very hard to understand. The basic takeaway, though, is that we are exposed constantly, especially somebody living in a big city, but really everywhere, to really loud sounds that can hurt our hearing.

IRA FLATOW: You know what the loudest sound I– because what I do for a living is listen. The loudest, most annoying sound I have found recently– and I actually brought my decibel meter to check it out– was the airline bathroom. When you flush that airline toilet, it’s over 100 dB. That’s loud. And it peaks out there. People thought I was crazy.

DAVID OWEN: Yeah. The federal regulations are sounds that are close to painful are certainly damaging that workers in covered industries are allowed to be exposed to for eight hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year. And even the government knows that what regulations we have are not sufficient to protect those people.

I also was thinking, listening to your previous guest, one of the threats to the health of marine mammals is human generated sound. The largest single input of human generated sound into the oceans is ocean shipping, the sound of the engines in ships. But also, we explore for gas and oil by basically setting off explosions underwater, then listening to the seismic echoes. All these things have devastating effects on marine life, marine mammals, which have ears like ours. And we don’t even know what impact we’re having.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we really are not aware of how loud the sounds we are and the sounds we are making that might disturb the world we live in.

DAVID OWEN: That’s true. And my wife, I always used to make fun of my wife because she would put on earplugs when she used her food processor. But now I do it, too. She bought me, when I was working on our house, she bought me a set of protective earmuffs, and I would only put them on if I thought that she could see me. But now I wear them all the time, and I carry a pair of musician’s earplugs on my key chain. And I’ll put them in even– my wife and I went to see the movie, Dunkirk, which is basically one continuous explosion from the opening credits to the end. And it made it tolerable. It was painful otherwise.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I get it. I get it. Because I bring mine to weddings and bar mitzvahs, where the bands are very loud.

DAVID OWEN: Yes, yes.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. David Owen, New York staff writer, author of the new book, a great book, Volume Control, Hearing in a Deafening World. And we have an excerpt on our website. It’s sciencefriday.com/volume. Thank you for taking time to be with us today, David.

DAVID OWEN: Oh, thanks, Ira.

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