Hearing aids have come a long way from the buzzing beige contraptions grandpa used to wear. Today they are sleek, sophisticated and hardly visible.
"Hearing aids are advanced these days," says Jerry Ruzicka, president of Starkey Laboratories Inc. "The belief is that hearing aids make things louder, and they really don't. They're really miniature computers that we're putting in people's ears."
Ruzicka says today's advancements revolve around bringing wireless capabilities to hearing aids.
"We actually are putting a tiny radio in our hearing aids these days," he says. "And with that radio we can transmit from other accessories, like a TV signal, your iPod or your cellphone. It allows people to hear the signal without the interference of other noise."
Starkey makes more than a million hearing aids each year. Its most popular is the Wi series -- a direct-to-device hearing aid, worn behind the ear, that allows customers to listen to TV and music by streaming stereo sound directly to the hearing aid, like headphones.
The company also offers invisible hearing aids, which Ruzicka describes as a contact lens for the ear.
"Many people like the fact that they can hide their hearing aid," he says. "It's no different than people who don't want to wear glasses. We get an ear impression, and from that we will custom fabricate something that fits the ear exactly."
The new technology is helping to motivate people who are reluctant to wear hearing aids. Oticon Inc., another maker of hearing aids, says that only 20 percent of people who could benefit from hearing instruments seek help. Industry studies show that one in 10 people who purchase hearing aids never wear them.
"Hearing devices, no matter how advanced their technology, provide no benefit 'in the drawer,'" Peer Lauritsen, president of Oticon, said in a recent press release.
Lauritsen says the company's Intiga hearing aid, which connects wirelessly to cellphones and can stream audio from TVs and land line phones, is helping to "motivate rapid acceptance and long-term use."
Ruzicka says people who need hearing aids but are reluctant to get them don't realize how much it can change their life.
"They really don't realize what they're missing," he says. "When they get them for the first time, you see the big smile on their face, and they tell you about the birds they can hear for the first time in years or they say, 'I didn't know bacon sounded like that when it was frying,' or, 'I can hear my grandkids.'"
Ruzicka says hearing aids also help people who are socially reserved and disconnected from their friends and family reconnect.
"It's an important ingredient to enjoying life," he says. "The technology has changed so much that if anyone has had a bad experience, there's a great opportunity to try the technology and see what it can do for them."
It's important that consumers work with a qualified audiologist when considering getting a hearing aid, Ruzicka says. The fitting process and patient counseling are important ingredients, and consumers need to work with professionals who understand how to program them.
"Hearing aids are intelligent devices that can characterize noise," Ruzicka says. "We live in a noisy world, and by using this technology, we find better ways of controlling the noise and letting people hear what they want to."