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Can the headphones work as over-the-counter hearing aids?

Every Friday, The Washington Post Help Desk answers readers’ questions about the technology in their lives. This week, we heard from an 82-year-old reader in Atlanta who wondered if people who wear hearing aids can wear hearing aids, too, and if tiny in-ear hearing aids could ever replace hearing aids entirely.

It’s a great time for this question: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided this month to greenlight the sale of over-the-counter hearing aids, the first time Americans with hearing loss can access hearing aids without a prescription. This also opens the door for technology companies to adapt their headphones to FDA requirements and market them as hearing aids. Sony, for example, he said he has plans to make over-the-counter grab-and-go hearing aids. Audio company Jabra already makes headphones with what it calls “medical-grade” hearing enhancement.

For people who already wear hearing aids, most contemporary hearing aids come with Bluetooth compatibility, says Lindsay Creed, associate director of audiology practice at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. That means you can connect them to your audio source without cables. Check with your audiologist or the manufacturer to find out if your hearing aids are Bluetooth-enabled and how to “pair” them with an audio source such as a cell phone, computer, or MP3 player.

Coming soon to a phone near you: a new wave of accessibility tools

If your hearing aid doesn’t come with Bluetooth, the manufacturer may sell an adapter that acts as an intermediary between your phone and the hearing aid. Absent that, you can always opt for a pair of behind-the-ear, over-the-ear, or in-ear headphones, audiologists told me, just be sure to keep the volume around 50 percent to avoid further damage. .

As for whether a good pair of headphones could completely replace a hearing aid, that depends, says Payal Anand, director of audiology at the University of California, San Francisco.

“Hearing aids can provide some amplification, but they will be limited in terms of how much amplification they provide and how personalized they can be,” he said.

So-called earables, or hearing-enhancing headphones, can work very well for people with mild hearing loss or trouble in noisy environments, Anand said. Apple, Beats, Bose and Panasonic are the brands his patients have had the best luck with when it comes to wireless headphones with amplification or noise cancellation, he said.

How to adjust your headphones to hear better

if you have later generation Apple or Beats headphones, Apple devices allow you to adjust sound levels using an audiogram or hearing test. The best results will come from a test administered by an audiologist, but in a pinch, an audiogram app can estimate your levels of hearing loss. I used the Mimi hearing test app to measure what high and low sounds you could hear at different volumes. I then shared my results with the Apple Health app. Lastly, I went to Settings -> Accessibility -> Audio/Visual -> Headphone Accommodations. I turned the green slider to the “on” position, then tapped “Custom Audio Settings” to tell the phone to use my unique audiogram to set the levels of amplification, transparency, pitch, ambient noise reduction, and talk boost on my AirPods.

Your personalized AirPod settings should stay the same even if you use the headphones with an Android device.

To modify sound settings on an Android phone, try going to Settings -> Sounds and vibrations -> Advanced sound settings -> Sound quality and effects -> Adapt sound. Select your age and “preview” the sound to see if the adjustment is helpful. Go to Settings -> Accessibility -> Hearing Enhancements to turn on “Hearing Aid Compatibility” to improve sound quality, adjust the balance between your left and right ears when using headphones, or switch to mono audio (one ear only).

Remember: You can always visit an audiologist to help you fit your over-the-counter headphones or earphones.

Although headphones with advanced features such as fall detection and AI-powered sound adjustment may soon be approved as over-the-counter hearing aids, they are likely to still have limitations in terms of battery life and adjustability compared to hearing aids. standard, according to Anand. Bottom line: They’ll be a cost-effective resource for people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss or who want an extra specialized pair for exercise or other specific use.

For example: Creed once had a 90-year-old patient bring in an old pair of hearing aids to do some adjustments. She had written a “bucket list” that included skydiving and didn’t want her newest hearing aid to fall at 10,000 feet.

“She proceeded to skydive three or four times with those old headphones,” Creed said.

Hearing aids with sophisticated hearing enhancement software are an exciting step in improving the affordability and accessibility of hearing devices. (Only one in five people with hearing loss gets the treatment they need, Creed noted, and some research has linked hearing loss to dementia.) But if you have moderate to severe hearing loss, don’t throw away those traditional hearing aids just yet.


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