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  • Heard the news? New technology has revolutionized hearing aids and local programs make them more affordable.

    Hearing aids made headlines when President Clinton wore his in public. The media immediately took note of the aging of the baby boom generation, apparently unaware that Clinton's hearing loss may primarily be noise-induced-it's impossible to say how much his hearing was affected by years of playing saxophone in a band. However, those reporters weren't far off-25 percent of those 50 and older are affected by age-related hearing loss.

    Both types of hearing loss occur when sound-sensing cells deteriorate. The sounds lost first are high-pitched tones. Unfortunately, some of those high-pitched tones, such as the fluted notes of spring's first robins or a grandchild's sweet song, are sounds we love to hear. Even though age-related hearing loss isn't reversible, new technology makes it possible for nearly all of us to tune in to the most thrilling sounds of our lives.

    "Hearing aids amplify and filter sound, usually to boost the high-frequency tones," says Deborah Lyon, manager of audiology services at Rhode Island Hospital. But conventional behind-the-ear and in-the-ear hearing aids tend to distort sound and generate feedback. Completely-in-the-canal (CIC) hearing aids better approximate sounds and eliminate some unwanted input, such as wind noise. Because CIC hearing aids are fitted to an individual's ear canal, not everyone is a good candidate.

    The most advanced is the digitally programmable hearing aid. "These hearing aids don't just amplify sound," says Lyon, "they have a tiny computer chip inside, which hooks up to a computer so we can adjust the sound and memories."

    Digitally programmable hearing aids can be fine-tuned to the degree of hearing loss, and can be re-programmed as the person's hearing changes. They also contain special sound processing circuitry that provides wonderful clarity. Lyon compares the new technology to the difference between the quality of a CD and a cassette. There's less distortion and feedback. The sound is much sharper and clearer.

    "You can see the difference when people are fitted with the programmable aids," Lyon says. "They begin to smile, so I know it's more like normal hearing."

    Prices vary according to the size and complexity of the hearing aid. Some insurance plans cover a portion of the cost but if your plan doesn't provide coverage, you may qualify for a Rhode Island Hospital program that provides reconditioned hearing aids to those who need them. RIH experts also assist patients in locating lower cost hearing aids.

    For information about hearing aids, call 401-444-5485.