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Boomers get hearing help

Hearing-aid companies target younger market

Hearing-aid companies target younger market

September 17, 2007|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

It used to be that if William "Mike" Kronk were attending a lecture or concert, he'd appear to be digging in his ears.

This is what would happen before he got his new hearing aids. When the noise would get too loud or too soft, he had to poke his finger in his ear to turn the volume up or down on the clunky old hearing aids resting in his ears.

"Those things were so uncomfortable," said Kronk, 60, of Martinsburg, W.Va. "I just stopped wearing them altogether."

His new hearing aids can discern between background and conversational noise levels. They are lightweight and inconspicuous. "Sometimes, I forget I'm wearing it," Kronk said.

As more baby boomers like Kronk experience hearing loss, they are becoming the new target audience for hearing-aid manufacturers who are trying to lure them by making high-tech hearing devices.

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"This is the next wave of hearing-impaired people. They're not going to wear a hearing aid their parents wore," said Lynn Gibson-Taucher, a clinical audiologist at Hearing Care Center off Robinwood Drive, east of Hagerstown.

The center sells hearing devices, including the Epoq, a hearing aid that functions both as a Bluetooth headset (yes, you can now use your hearing aid to talk on your cell phone) and as an MP3 player. Epoq hearing aids cost $7,000 a pair, Gibson-Taucher said.

The cost of a hearing aid averaged just under $2,000 in 2005, according to The Hearing Review, a trade publication for the audiology industry.

According to Census data, there were 78.2 million baby boomers as of July 1, 2005. Baby boomers account for 18 percent of 32.5 million adults who reported some degree of hearing loss in 2003, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, a branch of the National Institutes of Health.

According to the same study, adults 75 and older accounted for 47 percent of adults to report hearing problems.

Until recently, hearing aid companies targeted those in the 75 and older group, said Linda McCullum, a licensed hearing-aid distributor at Sonus Hearing Care Professionals in Hagerstown.

McCullum said she noticed a marketing shift toward younger clients in the past year. "They're marketing them as (being) 'an expression of you,' not a sign of old age," she said.

One pamphlet in McCullum's office at South Pointe Shopping Center is for Audéo hearing aids that come in colors such as "Green with Envy" and "Flower Power."

On the cover, there's a youngish looking guy with peppery gray hair and a navy pin-striped suit. The text: "Your life, amplified."

Kronk had bad experiences with two other hearing aids since he was first diagnosed with hearing loss in 1977. He said they were big, clunky and filtered sound poorly.

Most of all, they were uncomfortable. "It felt like you were walking around with pencils in your ears," Kronk said.

After wearing them intermittently for a few years, he decided he was better off not wearing them at all.

"We paid a lot of money for them to be sitting on the dresser collecting dust," said his wife, Linda.

Then he saw a TV commercial for an Audéo hearing aid, with the same suited man in the pamphlet. The Audéo is able to distinguish high-pitched sounds and naturally convey real-world sounds - features he wasn't getting with his old hearing aids.

"I thought I'd give it a try," he said.

Kronk got an Audéo hearing aid in July. He said he wasn't worried about the fancy colors or showing his age, but said he bought them for their comfort.

"You can tell my age," he said. "The white beard, the white hair. At Christmas time, the kids call me Santa."

The Audéo cost more than his old hearing aids, $5,600 compared with just over $2,000 for the old ones. "It was worth every penny," he said.

He said his only initial challenge was getting used to being able to hear.

"I was so used to not being able to hear that every thing seemed so loud," he said. "It was about to drive me crazy. I went from not being able to hear to what you would consider normal."

But he's adjusted. Now, standing in his backyard is almost like being in a new world.

"I remember one time I was back there and I could hear birds," Kronk said. "I didn't know they were there before because I couldn't hear the birds sing."

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