New research say that wireless earphones perform nearly as well as hearing aids, and may offer a relatively more affordable alternative to expensive assistive technology for individuals with mild to moderate hearing impairment. Apple’s Live Listen technology that amplifies sound is a feature that works similarly to a personal sound amplification product (PSAP), the researchers noted.
While the recent research rightly highlights the challenges of access to assistive technology, it also explores the viability of advanced wireless earphones, particularly AirPods, as an alternative to professional hearing aids. This raises an important question: can commercial products, such as wireless earphones, be an adequate substitute for medically supervised hearing aid technology or are they limited to a technocratic solution to a global problem that only a few have access to?
Hearing loss is a common disability that affects 20% of the world’s population. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2050, approximately 2.5 billion people will have some degree of hearing loss, of which at least 700 million will require hearing rehabilitation. An editorial published in The Lancet Global Health mention that most people with hearing loss do not seek treatment. The barriers fueling this neglect include limited awareness, high costs and social stigma. That was the case in the United States estimated that 75% of people with hearing loss do not use a hearing aid. Uncorrected hearing loss can seriously impede communication leading to negative mental health impacts, social isolation and can also lead to an increase in hearing loss risk of dementia.
The high cost of professional hearing aids is a major barrier to access to assistive technology. Added to this is the cost of follow-up visits to hearing care professionals for frequent tuning of these devices. In their study, the researchers specifically compared Apple’s AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro – “generally available devices” – with both premium and basic hearing aids. The average cost of premium hearing aids is $10,000, while basic versions cost about $1,500. By comparison, both AirPods models are much more affordable, costing between $129-249, the researchers noted.
The team tested the devices on 21 participants with mild to moderate hearing loss, asking the participants to repeat a sentence read to them while wearing each of these devices.
their findings, published in the journal iScience, found that AirPods Pro performed better and met four out of five hearing aid technology standards. In a quiet environment, AirPods Pro performed similar to regular hearing aids, but slightly less than premium hearing aids. AirPods 2 performed the worst, but researchers noted that it helped participants hear better compared to wearing no hearing aid at all.
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In a noisy environment, AirPods Pro performed similarly to premium hearing aids, likely due to the noise-cancelling technology, but only when the sounds were coming from the sideways direction of the participant. When the sounds came from the front, both models failed to help participants hear better.
“Two reasons could explain the difference between the two scenarios… It could be related to the trajectories of sound waves, but also to the advanced signal processing algorithm of premium hearing aids. This finding will hopefully inspire engineers to design hearing aids and personal sound amplification products that are more sensitive in certain directions,” said Ying-Hui Lai, a study co-author and a bioengineer at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University in Taipei.
“The market for wireless earphones is growing rapidly worldwide. Some companies are interested in exploring the possibility of designing earbuds with sound amplification features. Our study proves that the idea is plausible,” Lai said. Admittedly, these wireless earphones could serve to address a major barrier to access to hearing aid technology: that of social stigma.
“Many patients are hesitant to wear them because they don’t want to look old. So we started looking into whether there are more accessible alternatives,” says Yen-fu Cheng, an author of the study. No one will think twice when they see others with earphones plugged in, allowing people to escape the unwarranted attention that more conspicuous hearing aids could attract. “These wireless earbuds aren’t perfect, of course, but they would be a good starting point for many patients who don’t have access to professional hearing aids. They will see an increase in quality of life even with these earplugs,” said Cheng.
However, these devices are only intended as an alternative option and do not address the root cause of this stigmatization. Advocating awareness as a first step, editorial from The Lancet noted“Unless we change how societies view people who wear hearing aids and actively engage the community in supporting people with hearing loss, we can hardly improve the health inequalities this population experiences.”
In addition, the proposed solution is only a boost, but does not address the experience of hearing loss itself. “This particular study focuses on technical measurements, but the whole experience of hearing aid wearers is a bit more complex… For example, the study suggests that AirPods don’t pick up sounds in front of the wearer. In reality, most people need to hear the voices for them the most,” said Blake Cadwell, founder and CEO of Soundly, a website that helps consumers compare over-the-counter and prescription hearing aids. told The edge.
These wireless devices do not improve hearing for people with more advanced hearing loss. An article in The Verge noted that PSAPs may be cheaper than hearing aids, but they amplify all sounds and cannot be adapted to the individual needs of people with hearing impairments. They are also built with the intention of amplifying sound for people with normal hearing, for example bird watchers.
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However, access to assistive technology is an important issue that requires global attention. A report released earlier this year by WHO and UNICEF found it that while more than 2.5 billion people require one or more assistive products such as wheelchairs or hearing aids, access in low- and middle-income countries may be as low as 3%.
Further, while AirPods may be cheaper compared to professional hearing aids, they remain a significantly expensive proposition as wireless earphones. The Lancet Editorial noted that more than 80% of the world’s population with hearing loss lives in low and middle income countries (LMICs). While AirPods and other earphones with similar features from competing brands may help many people in developed countries who already own these devices, they may be an unfeasible compensation strategy for most people living in regions where hearing loss is reported to be concentrated.
According to the Lancet editorial, the high cost of hearing aids is due to the global supply being controlled by manufacturers in high-income countries. It proposed strengthening infrastructure support and investment to drive the production of low-cost and safe hearing aids in LMICs while incorporating assistive technologies into national health insurance plans. Over-the-counter hearing aids are gaining popularity, especially in the US following approval for sale by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, they still do not solve the problem need for professional assessments to determine what strength and attitude an individual needs. “Reliance on OTC hearing aids may temporarily alleviate the problem of disease management, but it does little for prevention or rehabilitation,” the editorial noted.
According to the recent study, wireless earphones can indeed improve the quality of life for a certain segment of the world’s population with significant purchasing power. However, they will not currently meet the needs of the vast majority of people with hearing impairments. As the editorial stated, “Hearing loss, an urgent but often invisible problem, requires increased attention from global health researchers and a systematic effort that takes into account differing needs of diverse groups with vulnerabilities across the life course.”