Baby boomers' expectations are pushing tech companies to update hearing devices

At last week's Connected Health Conference, Daniel Shen, founder of Eargo, discussed designing hearing tools for baby boomers.
By Laura Lovett
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The expectations and lifestyles of baby boomers are quickly shaping the way new technologies are developing, and this includes hearing aids and related devices. 

“They are the largest consumer of healthcare services, and they are very avid consumers of healthcare information and seek out information themselves,” Daniel Shen, founder of hearing aid company Eargo, said at the Connected Health Conference last week in Boston. “They approach the healthcare providers with greater initiative than older generations. What that means is from a medical device or solution standpoint, they are a very important generation and they may be able to seek out their own sources of information and not just from their doctors.”

Roughly 30 million Americans are impacted by hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, and older people are most affected by hearing loss. However, hearing aids still remain difficult to obtain for many seniors.

Last year Dr. Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer at AARP, told MobiHealthNews that hearing was a major concern in senior care. However, since the technology is not covered by Medicare, cost of the can create barriers for many living with the condition. According to the AARP, the price of a single hearing aid is $2,300 on average. 

Another concern is that despite the aging population, hearing technology has remained somewhat stagnant for decades, according to Shen. However, the baby boomer population is largely tech savvy, with smartphone usership rates as high as 68%, according to the Pew Research Center. This familiarity with tech, consumer mentality and particular needs is driving hearing aid creation, Shen said. 

“Designing for the baby boomer population isn’t about designing for millennials with grey hair. There are certain things designers have to keep in mind,” he said. “First of all, the common trends of consumer electronics which use small text or unlabeled or nearly invisible buttons or unintuitive interfaces may not cut it. Designers have to keep in mind there may be limitations in terms of the hearing, vision and dexterity of this population. That is where you can often see a divide between the consumer products that we love and what is commonly seen as consumer health products for the aging population, which by contrast can often feel dull or stigmatized. That is where you create this big rift and divide.”

However, innovators in big tech and the startup world have traditionally had success in bridging this gap. 

“So, where Silicon Valley commonly succeeds is it is able to rethink product categories, sales, channels and how people interact and feel about their devices," Shen said. "Innovators can often be unafraid to rethink every detail about the product so that they could create beauty where there once was just beige.”

Shen said when the Eargo team was developing their product, they interviewed seniors with and without hearing loss about what they were looking for. Eventually the team narrowed in on comfort, affordability, natural sound and a discrete look. The technology is made of medical-grade silicon that goes inside the ear, and the latest version includes a companion app. Eargo’s hearing aids range from roughly $1,650 to $2,750 a pair. 

But Eargo isn’t the only Silicon Valley company to get involved in this space. Big tech is also looking at hearing. After months of rumors that Apple would start focusing on hearing-related health technologies, the company launched a new feature in June that alerts users if environmental noise or phone audio could impact their long-term health. 

“Since hearing loss is often so gradual, it is important to know when the sounds around you are loud enough to impact your hearing, like when you are in the middle of a construction zone, at a sporting event or playing your music really loud,” Apple VP of Health Dr. Sumbul Desai said at Apple’s worldwide developer conference. 

Apple has also partnered with several hearing aid companies to stream the technology. Users of certain hearing aids can connect their device with iPhones, iPads or iPods. The device can pair with a user’s hearing aids and be controlled via the device. 

Then in September Google teamed up with Cochlear and GN Hearing to launch a new service that uses Bluetooth Low Energy to stream content from Android devices directly to hearing aids. Users can tap into the audio from their Android devices via the hearing aids. 

Eargo has decided that, for now, it is not taking the streaming route. 

“When you start streaming it will sacrifice in terms of size and battery life, so we haven’t made that jump yet because of what we want to deliver to our patients,” Shen said. “That being said, once that happens, partnering with an Apple or the Android ecosystem makes a lot of sense.”