January 15, 2009

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Article

Hear This

New Technology is Music to the Ears

Carolyn Campbell

January 15, 2009

What do a construction worker, insurance salesman and finance salesman have in common? Better hearing. Dennis Glassburn feels that his years in the heavy construction and rock crushing industries contributed to the hearing loss he experiences today. His work involves big equipment that makes a lot of noise. He also drove a tank in the Vietnam War–no quiet feat. And while working as an insurance salesman, Alton R. Larsen began to notice that other people’s voices trailed off at the end of sentences. “If I said, ‘what?’ I had to listen to the whole sentence again,” he recalls. Background noise in crowded places, such as in restaurants, also made it hard for him to understand what others were saying. He eventually realized he suffers from hearing loss. Like Glassburn and Larsen, Cameron McClure spends much of his professional time talking to people. At Marquette Equipment Finance, he does inside and occasional outside sales. The 41-year-old salesman was born with a severe hearing loss. “I can hear the lower tones fine. It’s the higher-pitched sounds that I have trouble hearing,” he says. All three men say that their professional lives are greatly enhanced by using sonicBLU, a wireless communication device from Sonic Innovations that allows hearing aid users to wirelessly connect to Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones. Michael Nilsson, Ph.D., vice president of Auditory Research and director of the Center for Amplification and Hearing Research for Sonic Innovations, says that the sonicBLU is an example of how technology has been applied to the hearing aid industry to help people interact and, therefore, improve the lives of hearing-impaired listeners. “The people I talk to are out in the field somewhere—possibly Hawaii, Oregon or California,” says Glassburn. “I can spend my time carrying on a conversation instead of concentrating on trying to hear what people say.” McClure shares the same hearing success, “Now, I can hear whole conversations instead of bits and pieces,” he says, adding that the device has four modes: phone, universal, high noise and classroom. “I’m able to push a button to go on the phone when I’m driving. Before, I had one hand on the wheel and tried to hold the phone up, while the background noise made it difficult to hear. The sonicBLU is much safer and easier than trying to talk on a regular or cell phone.” When not using the phone, McClure spends 80 percent of his time utilizing the SonicBLU universal mode. The high noise mode filters out background noise in restaurants, on the freeway “and even at basketball games,” says McClure. At the gym, he’s able to plug his Ipod into the sonicBLU device to hear tunes perfectly. “The Ipod ear buds are made for people with normal hearing. For me, that’s almost like listening to an AM radio on an old car.” He adds that it’s also possible to plug a transmitter into the television to transmit TV audio to the sonicBLU unit. “You don’t have to blast your family out by turning it up to 30 when they can hear it at 10,” he says. Today, major manufacturers use digital signal processing and almost all hearing aids have a computer chip, says Nilsson. “Many of these chips are more powerful than the Pentium chips typically used in computers.” He adds that such hearing aids can make a huge difference in someone’s life, even if his or her only problem is high noise situations. The brain adapts to it, thinking that’s just the way the world sounds. It takes time to adjust to a new hearing aid, as the brain has to learn to listen again, and the patient eventually realizes that if he or she tries, he or she can listen and understand,” Nilsson says. Larsen compares adjusting to a hearing aid to becoming used to eyeglasses to help improve vision—at first it feels like a foreign object, “but pretty soon, you are saying, ‘I’m blind without my glasses.’” After using the sonicBLU for a week and a half, Larsen feels it makes all the difference in the world in his ability to do business. Nilsson agrees, saying that once hearing aid adjustment takes place, “it’s often like a huge revelation as the world opens up.” He recalls one patient who had changed his life by avoiding restaurants and group settings, knowing that he couldn’t hear what was going on. After he got his hearing aid, Nilsson says he could suddenly follow a conversation. “He found himself doing things he had avoided for years,” he says. “He cried when he told me how much his life had changed. That just made it for me.”
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