Our Pledge To You


Technological advances offer new options for the hearing-impaired

John Sturz, a retired Lutheran pastor who has cochlear implants, enjoys swimming at the Centegra Health Bridge Fitness Center in Huntley, one of the hobbies he can do with the implants. | Rich Chapman/For the Sun-Times

Retired Lutheran pastor John Sturz likens his renewed hearing from the Cochlear implants in his skull to witnessing a miracle.

“To me, it’s a miracle that someone invented this,” he said, referring to the Cochlear Nucleus 7 sound processors that connect wirelessly to everyday devices and let him hear through his brain. The implants work by electrically stimulating the auditory nerve.

Sturz, 69, of Huntley, qualified for the outpatient surgery because he could no longer comfortably hear normal conversations. In fact, he lost 25 percent of his hearing in his right ear in one year’s time. He got the implant in his right ear in June 2012 and in his left ear 18 months later.

John Sturz, a retired Lutheran pastor who has cochlear implants, qualified for the outpatient surgery because he could no longer comfortably hear normal conversations. | Rich Chapman/For the Sun-Times

Here’s how it works: Bluetooth technology is built into the implant system, so it can wirelessly connect to electronics such as an iPhone or TV streaming devices or to a GPS system while driving.The user wears the external component behind his or her ear. The user can adjust the device’s microphone to focus solely on the sounds he wants to hear, such as listening to his iPhone conversation or a dinner companion’s voice while canceling out any surrounding noise.

Sturz, a Forest Park native, doesn’t know the reason his hearing declined so precipitously, but it may be due to his work as a teenager at a grinding machine in a plastics plant.

Now he can swim, listen to audiobooks, distinguish bird calls, hear his wife Carol’s conversation in a restaurant, and watch TV with his family without blasting everyone with super-high volume.

“The implants have allowed me to get more out of life,” he said, noting that people who gradually lose their hearing can easily become isolated.

People with the implants can access a web portal to get rehab online, watch videos on how to get the most out of their hearing system or access other helpful advice. Surgically implanted medical devices such as Sturz’s are among the fastest-growing solutions for Baby Boomers over 65.

“The fastest-growing population in the United States is age 65-plus, and hearing loss happens as we age, so we’re seeing lots of breakthroughs in hearing technology,” said Patricia Trautwein, an audiologist and vice president of marketing and product management at Cochlear Americas.

People can take a hearing test, called an audiogram, at an audiologist’s office, at an ear, noise and throat specialist’s office or even at a Costco store.

It’s particularly important because research shows people with hearing loss that goes untreated are more likely to suffer from dementia and to lose their balance and fall. One in six Americans experiences hearing loss, but about 80 percent do nothing about it, according to hearing aid maker Starkey. Among those age 18 and older, 15 percent of American adults (37.5 million) report some trouble hearing, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Each ear bud in the Bose HearPhones has microphones that listen to the world around the user. | Courtesy Bose

People with Cochlear implants soon will be able to connect remotely with their doctors without having to travel to their appointments. The FDA has approved the first remote feature in programming software that would let the patient and clinician communicate through a special computer program with a video connection.

The program would work on medical software that couldn’t be downloaded on a personal computer. So only an audiologist or qualified doctor would be able to program the software.

“We’re seeing the medical world become more ingrained in our lives, and we’re empowering patients to take control and do more than we ever thought possible,” Trautwein said.

Indeed, less-invasive hearing devices, now termed “hearables,” are becoming available over-the-counter and available to any age group to help enhance hearing, experts say.

Apple’s Made for iPhone technology, for example, lets people control hearing aids through an iOS device. Users can also control their hearing aids through an Apple Watch connected to an iPhone.

Bose, the company known for its audio speakers and headphones, started selling hearing aids for $499.95 in its stores and online in 2017. Each ear bud in the Bose HearPhones has microphones that listen to the world around the user and a collar that the user wears on the back of his or her neck. The collar contains a battery, Bluetooth radio and controls and signal processing technology.

Courtesy Cochlear Americas

People use the Bose hearing system to better hear conversations in noisy places; to keep noise out in, for example, a construction zone, and to hook into smartphones and TV shows.

“You can also control the volume and tonality, all through the headphones’ companion smartphone app,” said Kathy Krisch, director of Bose’s Hear business.

An executive at hearing-aid maker Starkey says his company’s next product line out later this year will for the first time use inertial sensors and artificial intelligence to track users’ physical activity such as number of steps walked and include 3D motion-tracking technology to tell the user how his or her body is moving.

The goal: To remove the stigma often associated with wearing hearing aids by reinventing them to be a “multi-purpose, desirable device,” said Achin Bhowmik, chief technology officer and executive vice president of engineering for Starkey Hearing Technologies.

“Because many of our patients are 60-plus years old, if they know the benefits of physical activity, they can set a goal, like walking 10,000 steps a day, and track their progress on our devices,” said Bhowmik, 44, who joined Starkey nine months ago after leaving a job overseeing Intel Corp.’s operations in 3D sensing and interactive computing, computer vision and artificial intelligence, autonomous robots and drones, and immersive virtual and merged reality devices.

He said these technologies have become cost effective due to their mass deployment in mobile devices such as smartphones, and are not expected to impact the costs of hearing aids. Starkey hearing aids can go as high as $2,000.

Bhowmik described his life change as using the same advanced technologies to help humans that he previously used to enhance machine perception.

In the near future, he foresees Starkey’s hearing devices translating a speaker’s foreign language in real time so the user can understand it instantly, and sending alerts to loved ones and emergency responders when a hearing-aid user falls. The financial toll for older-adult falls is expected to increase as the population ages and may reach $67.7 billion by 2020, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

“There is a great opportunity for smart hearing devices,” Bhowmik said.

Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.