Will 3D printed hearing aids help give access to people suffering from age related hearing loss?
3D printed hearing aids may be another more affordable solution for individuals suffering from age related hearing loss. Hearing aids on the market are expensive and hard to access. They require visiting a hearing specialist, a hearing test, prescription and fitting (at minimum).
Researchers at Georgia Tech have developed a low-cost hearing aid for less than $1. This could affect tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of people around the world that are suffering in silence.
It is designed to be worn by people with age-related hearing loss and provides most of the functionality of traditional hearing aids.
“The challenge we set for ourselves was to build a minimalist hearing aid, determine how good it would be and ask how useful it would be to the millions of people who could use it,” said M. Saad Bhamla, a researcher involved in the study. “The need is obvious because conventional hearing aids cost a lot and only a fraction of those who need them have access.”
What is age related hearing loss?
Age related hearing loss is also known as presbycusis. It is one of the most common conditions affecting older adults. It happens gradually as we grow older and often occurs in both ears. Due to the fact that age related hearing loss is gradual, many individuals don’t realize it until they have already experienced issues with hearing loss.
Approximately one in five people in the United States has some form of hearing loss, one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 has hearing loss, and nearly fifty percent of the 75 and older population has difficulty hearing as well.
Age related hearing loss can be debilitating and often comes with higher risk of secondary physical and mental health issues. Untreated hearing loss can also make it hard to interact during social activities, when speaking with family or friends and may lead to frustration and isolation as communication becomes more and more difficult.
“The ability to hear makes a critical quality-of-life difference, especially to older people who may have less access to social relationships,” said Vinaya Manchaiah, a researcher developing the new solution. “Hearing has a direct impact on how we feel and how we behave. For older adults, losing the ability to hear can result in a quicker and larger cognitive decline.”
3D printed hearing aid components and limitations.
The ultra low-cost hearing aid was developed using open sourced parts and a 3D printed hearing aid casing to help keep the cost below $20. The research team believes this cost of a 3D printed hearing aid would be below $1 at larger scale. Either of these options would be much more affordable than traditional hearing aids that cost an average of $2,300 each or $4,600 per pair.
The research team behind the 3D printed hearing aid decided to tackle hearing loss at higher frequencies since this is what older individuals most commonly experience. This allowed the team to utilize electrical filters rather than digital signal processors to help keep the cost of the device down. The 3D printed hearing aids also required a microphone, circuit board, amplifier, battery source, audio jack and headphones.
“We have shown that it is possible to build a hearing aid for less than the price of a cup of coffee,” said Bhamla. “This is a first step, a platform technology, and we’ve shown that low cost doesn’t have to mean low quality.”
These open source 3D printed hearing aids do have drawbacks. They are not as customizable for an individual’s hearing, have a limited lifespan and are larger than solutions on the market.
However, this may be an effective option for individuals without an affordable solution.