Most people, especially males, suffer loss of hearing as they age. This is a much larger problem than our society admits. Helen Keller, a woman who lost her hearing and sight at the age of two, and became well known for her ability to overcome these handicaps, claimed that given a choice between one or the other, she would prefer to be blind. A famous quote from her was “Blindness separates people from things: deafness separates people from people”. I have known outstanding teachers who retired because they felt separated from their students, and business people who felt separated from their clients. I am fortunate in having so far retained my hearing ability , but at my age I am surrounded by people having mild to serious problems engaging in everything from meetings to casual social conversation.
As the two New York Times articles here, and here indicate, this is a widespread problem that will become more severe as populations age. Hearing aids have improved markedly over time, but only a fraction of the people who could benefit from them own one, for reasons ranging from cost to “looking old”. They also can be uncomfortable to wear and have short battery lives. Cost is probably primary, since the top of the line instruments can cost thousands of dollars, partly because of the archaic process needed to obtain one in countries such as the U.S.
In this day and age of technological wonders, especially the shrinkage in cost and size of electronic devices, this should definitely not be the case. But from these articles it looks as though there is hope. If some of the research and development money and talent going into the design of apps, trivial changes in operating systems, “smart watches”, and such things as autonomous cars could be spent on making better, cheaper hearing aids, a very large number of people could remain happily much more engaged in a full life.
The odd thing about this situation is that it seems that hearing aids could be rather easily matched to potential customers by use of tests administered by a computer coupled with a bit of fitting to the geometry of the potential customer’s ears. To throw a medical procedure into the mix without the coverage of insurance seems absurd. But from my own experience being involved in a start-up based on a potentially cheap serum-based test for allergies, I am not naïve about the difficulty of changing tradition. But in this case we are talking about large numbers of people who could be benefited by some of innovation both in the design and the distribution of hearing aids. I read an article about Facebook’s pressure on computer companies to either reduce the cost of the equipment needed to do social networking by a factor of ten, or to make it operate ten times as fast. How about reducing the cost of obtaining a hearing aid by a factor of ten and ensuring that they all have re-chargeable batteries?