April 4, 2008

Hearing Aids Now Fashion Statements for Boomers

How can you make a hearing aid sexy?

You call it "Passion" and color it shocking pink or lipstick red.

You call it "Vibe" and dress it in leopard print or checkered flag that looks positively NASCAR.

Manufacturers are banking on flash like that to attract baby boomers who have punished their ears with loud concerts and music played through headphones. Of 78 million boomers, one in six are estimated to have hearing loss.

The latest in hearing aids were on display at the Charlotte Convention Center Thursday at the annual conference of the American Academy of Audiology.

"It's about self-expression," said company rep Tom Powers, standing near a giant photo of an attractive young woman at one convention booth.

In her ear was the Vibe, a device the size and shape of a fake fingernail. But instead of blending in with her skin, it bore the same bold pattern of her leopard-print blouse.

Powers is with New Jersey-based Siemens Hearing Instruments, maker of the Vibe. Other Siemens' ads feature guys playing air guitar, riding motorcycles and racing cars.

The mantra from Powers and several other vendors: It's not your grandfather's hearing aid. Some manufacturers have even renamed them PCAs or Personal Communication Assistants.

The last thing age-conscious boomers want is to look old or uncool with a piece of skin-toned plastic stuck in their ear. So manufacturers are rolling out hipper models.

Some, like Vibe, are glitzy enough to resemble jewelry. Others, like Passion, made by Widex, are tucked behind the ear and far less noticeable.

Aging hippies who've rocked to the Grateful Dead for 40 years may find their guitarist Bob Weir persuasive, wearing his Entre Plus 450 in ads for the manufacturer Vivatone.

One display board at the convention even showed a sporty device with a white, dimpled surface like a golf ball. It's name: Oticon's "Fairway."

Companies are hoping the popularity of attached-to-the-ear cell phones will help make hearing aids more acceptable.

Phones played a role in one cutting-edge technology on display among the convention's 200-plus exhibitors. This new generation of hearing aids can be used as wireless receivers for cell phones as well as computers, iPods and TVs.

"They're trying to make hearing devices fun," says Michigan audiologist Gyl Kasewurm.

They're also pricey, with some models costing as much as $4,000 per ear, which is usually not covered by insurance. Medicare also doesn't cover them due to their high cost.

But will customers really go for a hearing aid that calls attention to itself like jewelry?

You bet, said audiologist Erin Maierle of California, among the nearly 7,000 attendees at the convention. "I've sold fluorescent orange," she said.

But it may take a while to catch on in the Carolinas.

"In our practice," says Charlotte audiologist Tracy Swanson, "I have more people who want all the options they can for matching their hair color."

Kid-friendly exhibit

The American Academy of Audiology exhibit hall, featuring the hearing aids, is not open to the public.

But you can visit a free, kid-friendly exhibit on hearing called "DiscovEARy Zone," 9 a.m.-4 p.m. today and Saturday at the Charlotte Convention Center.