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Science Capsule: Hearing Aids and Hearing Health Care

NIH- and NIDCD-supported research has driven the development of hearing aids from the first electronic hearing devices invented in the 1950s to the sophisticated digital devices available today. Innovative collaborations between the NIH, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have significantly improved hearing aid technology over the past 20 years. In addition to amplifying sound, today’s hearing aids are better designed to address the challenges of understanding speech, localizing sound, and hearing in noisy environments.

Despite these advances, NIDCD-supported scientists are continuing to seek ways to improve hearing aid technology, hearing aid fitting strategies, and auditory rehabilitation programs to enrich the communication experience and quality of life for millions of Americans who have hearing loss. NIDCD-supported scientists are developing more effective methods to reduce sound distortion, improve sound localization, and combine hearing aid and cochlear implant technologies. For example, NIDCD-supported research on the tiny fly named Ormia ochracea provided a model for the development of a miniature directional microphone for hearing aids to help users focus on a single speaker in a noisy room.

Improving hearing health is an ongoing priority for NIDCD. An estimated 17 percent of all American adults and nearly half of adults ages 75 years and older have some form of hearing loss, yet only about 20 percent of those who could benefit from hearing aids actually use them. For the past two decades, the NIH and the VA have cosponsored biannual national and international meetings to facilitate information sharing among hearing aid technology researchers. In 2009, NIDCD convened a workshop titled “Accessible and Affordable Hearing Health Care for Adults with Mild to Moderate Hearing Loss,” that resulted in research recommendations and a series of NIDCD research initiatives to explore new approaches, assessment methods, and small business technologies to improve access to hearing health care for underserved individuals. In addition, increasing the rate of hearing aid usage was a HHS Healthy People 2010 goal and continues as a Healthy People 2020 goal. NIDCD is committed to pursuing research to understand and improve hearing health for all Americans.