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The year of the boomers

Van Vliet, Dennis AuD

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000396592.79933.4e
Final Word

Dennis Van Vliet, AuD, is Senior Director of Professional Relations, Starkey Laboratories. Readers may contact Dr. Van Vliet at

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We've heard for years that the baby boomers are coming and we better be ready to serve their hearing needs. The threshold of 65 years has been assigned as the “moment” that they will arrive. The leading edge of the boomers was born in 1946, so 2011 is the long awaited year.

I am struggling to put the words in the right person as I write this because I belong in both camps. I am them and us. I'll get my Medicare card this year, and I am an audiologist. I'm nowhere near ready to retire, and in spite of gray hair, and a number of wrinkles, I feel pretty much the same as I did decades ago.

Quite frankly, I am often offended by targeted ads for products and services for “seniors” that I don't need. I might remember the introduction of transistors in electronics; the transition from black and white television to color; and the Davy Crockett coonskin hat I proudly wore in 1955 pretending to be a nine-year-old frontiersman, but I don't feel that I qualify as a senior. (Unless there is a discount that I can quietly take advantage of.)

But let's look at the situation with data rather than the emotion that clearly colors my feelings about the subject. The NIDCD reports that the majority of hearing loss begins for both males and females well before we reach 65 years of age, yet the self-reporting of hearing loss doesn't show dramatic growth until after age 75. It looks like I'm not so alone in my feelings. As a group, people seem to put off recognizing and admitting our own deficits for quite some time.

What then, will be the trigger that will awaken the suppressed awareness of hearing loss, and motivate my peers to seek information about hearing and take action? It probably will not be the traditional approaches our industry has taken for marketing and products because they haven't worked. The data have been essentially the same for decades, but there are emerging concepts that may make a difference.

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Cosmetic improvements in hearing aids that involve colors, BTE case design, thin tube and receiver-in-canal applications have improved the appearance of hearing aids dramatically. The evolution of components and techniques that permit some patients to enjoy invisible or nearly invisible hearing aids also appeals to those for whom cosmetics is important. The cosmetic effect is nothing new, and the developments are simply coinciding with what many people in general desire: to not appear impaired or what they may perceive as stigmatized with a prosthetic appliance. Marketing or educational material that focuses on improved cosmetics has shown increased response when compared to more generalized educational topics.

Convenience, when coupled with notably improved performance, is an area that I believe will make a big difference in acceptance of hearing aids and accessories. Connectivity, or the ability to efficiently couple our ears with other devices, not only improves performance, but pretty well solves the signal to noise problems that plague us in all but the quietest environments. We have seen over the past few years a progression of developments that are bringing convenient connectivity to hearing aid users.

What defines convenient? It clearly depends upon the individual user. Many people do not want complicated pairing routines and extra hardware to set up a connected environment.

The Etymotic Research Companion Mic system is a good example of a very well engineered system that is a solution for a person with difficulty hearing in noise. The system involves a simple pairing routine and placement of small transmitters about the size and appearance of MP3 players on those with whom conversation is desired. It is not too expensive, yet I offer it to many of my patients and rarely get even a passing interest.

I don't know if it is the addition of extra hardware, the perception of invasion of others' personal space with the neck worn devices, or fear of the pairing routines that keep people from adopting this simple solution to their biggest complaint. Maybe if everyone in the group could wear one and appreciate the benefits the stigma would fall away in favor of the obvious benefit.

By contrast, what we are seeing now is the introduction of well designed products that do not require extra hardware around the neck, and connect via very low power radio signals to a variety of devices from telephones to television, to other people. What this may do is start to bridge the gap from prosthetic to high-tech consumer devices that will add convenience and functionality to users with hearing loss and those with normal hearing as well. Maybe we baby boomers will buy into that!

The Final Word? The objections that begin with “C” have long been in our way when attempting to get our patients to follow our recommendations with respect to hearing aids; cosmetics, convenience, clarity, and cost, are at the top of the list. We are making progress with cosmetics, clarity, and convenience. What is now up to us is to be effective in our counseling so that the cost of hearing devices is appreciated as good value, rather than something patients begrudgingly have to pay for.

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.