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New world of high-tech hearing aids is out there

Audiologist Kim Dotson programs computer chips on her patients' aids


by: COURTESY OF KIM DOTSON - TESTING IS ONE KEY STEP â€' Kim Doson, doctor of audiology, points to a chart of the human ear and all the places where things can go wrong to cause hearing loss.Grandpa's hearing aids have been relegated to the trash heap (or should be), because today a whole new spectrum of devices is available.

Technological advances have rocketed forward at lightening speed in the world of computers, smart phones, tablets and so on, so it makes sense that the same technology is being applied to hearing aids, which now include Bluetooth and streaming television audio.

Kim Dotson, doctor of audiology and co-owner of three Sonus clinics, started working as an audiologist in 1984, and has worked for Sonus in King City since 1998. After assessing her patients' hearing needs and lifestyle, she fits them with hearing aids ranging in size, design and technology.

"Patients usually come in because they or their family members suspect they have a hearing problem," Dotson said.

In many cases though, physicians refer patients to Dotson. When a new patient comes in, she conducts an initial interview, which includes a discussion of the patient's medical history and his or her particular needs and lifestyle.

"I ask patients about their listening environments, and if they have trouble hearing on the phone or understanding speech on television," Dotson said.

Following the initial interview, Dotson conducts a hearing evaluation to determine if hearing aids are needed or if there is a medically related issue causing the hearing loss. If hearing aids are warranted, Dotson asks the patient what he or she wants the hearing aids to look like.

Digital hearing aids come in several styles, including behind the ear, open fit or receiver in the ear canal.

"Once the style is selected, then together we decide on the level of digital technology that is appropriate for the patient," Dotson said.

Every hearing aid has a computer chip, which Dotson can program for each individual patient. There are several features in these hearing aids that make it easier to hear in different listening environments. Hearing aid technology allows Dotson to analyze how the devices are being used.

"I can see how much time they spend in quiet environments, in noisy environments, if they are using their volume controls, and so on," Dotson said.

Hearing aids were not this advanced until recently, according to Dotson. They have evolved from having volume and tone controls to featuring Bluetooth capabilities, which can automatically adjust music and TV settings and link with phones for hands-free conversation.

Technology, not size, determines price, which ranges from $2,000 to $6,000 a pair, and interestingly, those same prices were in effect 15 to 20 years ago before all this technology came along, according to Dotson.

In addition to technological advancements, insurance has evolved over the years and is making strides toward improving compensation and support to those needing hearing treatment.

Since the aging baby boomer population will result in a doubling of the population older than 65 by the year 2030, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, those needing hearing aids will steadily rise also.

"The average age of people who first come in is between 75 and 80," Dotson said. "But with all the baby boomers now, the average age is getting younger, with one out of six baby boomers having hearing loss."

The hearing loss numbers are pretty staggering. For people 65 and older, 43 percent have hearing loss, and one in 10 Americans has a hearing loss along with one in 14 members of Generation X.

Hearing aid manufacturers are constantly improving digital technology and style, but when selecting hearing aids for patients, Dotson focuses first on her patients' lifestyles.

"What is their listening environment and their activity level?" Dotson asks. "Are they active and out in the workplace or in noisy environments, or do they barely leave the house?"

While a lot of Dotson's patients are in their 80s and 90s, she said one can't assume they live a sedentary lifestyle. For example, one of her 80-year-old patients runs marathons.

"A lot of my patients go to musicals and lectures," she said. "You can't assume because of age that people are no longer active."

Because hearing loss often occurs gradually, it can take about five to seven years after patients realize they have hearing loss before they'll do something about it. And, many times, family or friends notice the gradual change in a loved one's ability to hear well before they do, Dotson said.

She recommends that people get their hearing checked as part of their annual physical, or at least once before they recognize that they're experiencing hearing loss, in order to establish a baseline.

Hearing loss, according to Dotson, should be treated like any other medical condition. Left untreated, it too can lead to other health concerns, including anxiety, depression, isolation and diminished overall health and wellbeing.

"As people start to lose their hearing, they may become more isolated," Dotson said. "It's a very gradual process, and family and friends might mistake it for dementia."

Hearing aids are considered medical devices, and Sonus patients can return them up to 75 days after purchase. Hearing aids are projected to last three to five years, according to Consumer Reports, but Dotson said that the time is usually closer to five years, depending on wear and tear.

"It depends on how well the patient takes care of them, and how much they are outside in the dust and rain and dirt," Dotson said. "Some people want to change them every three years because they are looking for something that will work better for them, given the ever-changing technological advancements.

"Like with many other illnesses or diseases, people can be embarrassed or ashamed to admit they need help. The changes in hearing aid technology and variety in style have helped lessen the stigma associated with hearing loss, encouraging more people to get their hearing checked."

Sonus is located at 15405 S.W. 116th Ave., Suite 200, King City 97224; for more information, visit www.sonus.com/king-city or www.facebook.com/SonusWestside or call 503-684-1583.