Throughout recorded history, humans have suffered from hearing loss. To make matters worse, early steps to improve hearing were especially gaudy. From the whimsical ear trumpet to a vacuum tube unit the size of a filing cabinet, devices in the early 20th century were neither practical nor pretty.

Hearing aids come in various sizes to fit the needs and desires of each user.
Michael Johnson/Generations
Hearing aids come in various sizes to fit the needs and desires of each user. Michael Johnson/Generations

The last 15 years have seen dramatic changes in hearing devices. In many cases now, they’re invisible, long-lasting and make for much-improved quality of life.

Brian Hillesland, of Wadena, is the owner and hearing aid specialist of several hearing aid centers in the region, including Jefferson Hearing Aid Center. He started using hearing aids himself about a year and a half ago, he said — as soon as he identified a steady ringing in his ears as tinnitus. He finds that using hearing aids helps mask that annoyance.

But cost is a major factor in keeping many people from getting hearing aids. Hillesland said quality hearing aids can range from $2,000 to $8,000, depending on what you want them to do for you. That cost usually includes a hearing test, consultation, initial fitting, follow-up adjustments, routine cleanings, batteries and a warranty, when purchased from a hearing aid center rather than off the shelf.

“You can find lower prices, but we want to be the best for service,” Hillesland said.

Inevitably, a new user will, within the first couple weeks, need to go back in to fine-tune the device as they begin using it in various settings. That service may be ongoing over several visits.

“We want to be available,” Hillesland said.

When weighing the cost of hearing aids, Hillesland said it’s important to consider that good hearing does more than just let you hear what’s around you. Good hearing translates to good overall health.

“I do know depression and isolation, they happen all the time, I’ve seen it,” he said, adding that some clients say they don’t care to go to church or family gatherings anymore because they can’t hear what’s being said anyway.

People aged 50 and older with untreated hearing loss are more likely to report depression, anxiety, anger, frustration, emotional instability and paranoia, and are less likely to participate in social activities than those who wear hearing aids, according to hearing aid company Audibel. Hearing loss is also connected to cognitive decline, as adults with severe hearing loss are four times more likely to develop dementia. While one in five people suffer from hearing loss, 80 percent do nothing about it. It’s not just the elderly that suffer, either — as many as one in five teenagers have some type of hearing loss.

What’s new?

Hillesland started working in the hearing aid industry in 1986, when his father bought hearing aids for the first time. At that time, there were no digital devices or programmable hearing aids.

“They kind of had to adapt to a lot of things,” Hillesland said. “Now, with digital technology, we can do so much more as far as adjusting specific sounds for different frequencies and different volume levels. They can recognize which sounds are speech and which sounds are noise. There’s a big difference.”

Today’s hearing devices slip into the ear with ease and are barely visible. The smaller, longer-lasting battery technology has allowed users to go about a week at a time before replacing batteries, and rechargeable batteries last long enough to get a person through a whole day before needing a quick recharge.

Those powerful batteries don’t just amplify hearing anymore, but can also help cancel out annoying ringing in the ears. In addition, some higher-dollar devices are Bluetooth capable, meaning they can remotely connect to a smartphone. This allows the wearer to have a phone conversation using the microphones in their hearing aids.

Today’s top hearing aids even take overall health into account.

“In the works are hearing aids that can take your temperature, read your heart rate and measure your blood pressure,” Hillesland said. “One of the things that’s a real lifesaver is there are motion sensors in some of these now.”

Hearing aids with motion sensors track the wearer’s steps, and if the sensor finds that the user has fallen, that person will get a message on their phone checking their status. If they don’t respond back, the user’s contact list starts to get notified, with location information so they can find the person.

Unique features like that can add to people’s overall wellness, but Hillesland’s No. 1 goal is to help people hear.

“Better hearing is the most important thing,” he said.

When someone goes in looking to improve their hearing, Hillesland considers what device will work best for them, what look they like, how well the user can handle the device, and what they can afford.

Hillesland received his board certification in Hearing Instrument Sciences in 1997, and in 2001 he started Jefferson Hearing Aid Center in Wadena, which also has locations in Perham, Park Rapids, Detroit Lakes and Fergus Falls. He also has a hearing aid location in Brainerd, Preferred Hearing Aid Center.