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Digital Technology and Hearing Aids
ODHHS Information and Technical Assistance Series

Digital Technology and Hearing Aids:
The Promise and the Reality
(Source: American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, ASHA)
For the millions of people with hearing loss, digital technology offers the promise of improved listening with the help of hearing aids. Digital techniques have the potential to do some things better than conventional analog methods, and may some day give hearing aid users advantages they do not have now. It is no wonder that the new "digital" hearing aids are generating interest and excitement.

However, in reality, there is misunderstanding about digital technology, in particular, the differences between digital and analog techniques, and between fully digital hearing and digital hearing aid components.

Digital technology can tailor the various listening environment needs of hearing aid users. It can process sounds that reduce background noise, improve the clarity of speech, and control unwanted loudness.

At this time, both conventional analog hearing aids, as well as hearing aids that use digital technology can limit amplification of and/or suppress background noise. The difference between the two is the way noise is "recognized" and separated from speech. Most hearing aids now use a combination of the digital and analog methods for best results. In the future, digital techniques may allow more precise adjustments to improve further the clarity of speech.

A person wearing a hearing aid is faced with many different listening situations. Manual adjustments of the volume control or other controls on conventional hearing aids may be necessary before a person can hear well when moving from one listening environment to another.

Using digital technology, hearing aids can be programmed to make automatic adjustments in different environmental settings. For example, as a person moves from a quiet room to a noisy car, a hearing aid with digital components can adjust quickly to different listening needs and background noise levels.

Digital technology may also offer greater individualized fitting and customized hearing aid adjustments than are possible with analog technology. The hearing aid can be fitted using a computer and adjusted to an individual's specific type of hearing loss. It is possible, for example, to program an aid to amplify signals in high frequencies for individuals with only a high frequency hearing loss. In some instruments, modifications can be made as necessary by reprogramming without sending the aid back to the manufacturer, a particular advantage during the initial period of adjustment to a hearing aid.

Although many people refer to hearing aids that have programmable components as "digital hearing aids," there is no true digital hearing aid on the market at this time. Hearing aids may have some kind of digital technology or have programmable components but are not completely digital. Such aids are known as "hybrid" or "quasi-digital."

A digital or hybrid hearing aid is not necessarily superior to a conventional hearing aid at this time. Some questions to ask an audiologist are: What are the benefits of a particular hearing aid? Will I get better results from a hybrid hearing aid? Is programming easy to use? Will noise be reduced? Are multiple listening settings possible?

Because digital or hybrid hearing aids are more complex than conventional aids, they are more costly, larger in size, and use more power. Hearing aid technology, though, is constantly changing. It is likely that cost will come down over time, and size will be reduced as well.

Ask an audiologist who is familiar with your individual communication needs about new developments in hearing aids. Ask if the new digital technology is right for you amplification needs. Contact your audiologist at regular intervals to keep up with advancements and changes in hearing aid technology.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) is the national professional and scientific society that represents 81,427 audiologists; speech-language pathologists; and speech, language and hearing scientists. ASHA's mission is to promote the interest of its members, to provide them with the highest quality services, and to advocate for people with communication disabilities. ASHA's Consumer Affairs Division provides an information and referral service on a broad range of speech, language and hearing disabilities for both children and adults.