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Sean Sullivan has complete hearing loss in his right ear, as well as 50 percent in his left ear. But thanks to new technology in audiology, he can hear again.

"It allows someone with my kind of hearing loss to have like surround-sound hearing," said Sullivan, 45, a desktop technician who lives in Highland. "If I were to step outside and hear a helicopter, I would know what direction it was coming from. If you were to sit on my right side right now, I would actually be able to hear your conversation."

The digital hearing aid he got in February has made it easier for him to work and talk on the phone, which can connect to the hearing aid via Bluetooth.

"I can operate better in a busy environment," he said. "That enables me to do my job better and hear my clients better. It's huge for someone like myself. Having to ask someone to repeat themselves over and over again is kind of humiliating."

Many Northwest Indiana residents with hearing loss are similarly benefiting from new technology in hearing devices. Hearing aids can now connect, via Bluetooth, to phones and TVs. They are more tailored to each individual. They are rechargeable, making them easier to care for.

This is important because, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America, about a fifth of Americans, or 48 million people, report having some degree of hearing loss. Sixty percent of them are in the workforce or educational settings. One in 3 people older than 65 has some hearing loss.

New technology, procedures 

Dr. Valari Koziel, an audiologist with Franciscan Health Hammond Healthcare Audiology who treats Sullivan, said new hearing aids have noise reduction technology and can go behind the ears with the receivers in the ears to be less conspicuous.

"It's providing people the ability to communicate with their families in ways they haven't been successful with ever in the past," she said. "I've had patients go to Bears games and be able to communicate with fans around them like they haven't been able to do in 10 years. It's a game changer for functioning better in noisier environments."

She said surgical options, such as cochlear implants, are also available for patients with hearing loss so severe that aids don't work. and her practice does vestibular testing to diagnose vertigo or other causes of dizziness.

She noted that hearing aids are rechargeable now so the batteries don't have to be changed and repairs are minimal.

Dr. Mary Lou Dovantzis, an audiologist with UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial Hospital, said she customizes hearing aids based on the extent of hearing loss as well as how active the patient's lifestyle is.

"Our goal is to help bring back speech, the 'audibility' of speech, without making things too loud and hurting the ears," she said.

She said modern hearing aids have less whistling feedback and can be fit to a person's ear, sized as small as they've ever been.

She noted that people can now answer the phone with their hearing aids and download apps on their smartphones to adjust the settings on the devices.

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She predicted that in a couple of years hearing aids will be available over the counter, without a prescription. "But we don't talk about that," she joked, noting that patients would be able to get the devices without seeing an audiologist.

"We really want people to get their hearing tested because it's a slow, gradual process and people may not be aware of it," she said. "We can hopefully prevent someone from becoming socially isolated. We know depression can follow. And mental fatigue: If you can't hear well, you're using a lot more of your body and brain to participate and that can lead to mental fatigue."

Accessories, therapies offered

Dr. Jessica Barr, an audiologist with the LaPorte Physician Network, said hearing aid accessories now include a remote microphone that can be placed, say, on a conference table, lecture hall podium or theater stage so the person can hear the meeting, class or performance.

She said surgical options include bone-anchored hearing aids and, for kids with fluid in their ears, tube implants.

She said families play an important role in helping their loved one overcome hearing loss.

"You should try to talk to someone to the face instead of with your back toward them, walking away from them, in the other room or washing dishes, doing things with competing noise," she said. "It's nice to remind people of tricks to help people with hearing loss."

She said for individuals with tinnitus, or ringing in the ear, a program called tinnitus retraining therapy helps people learn how to live with the condition. There are also tinnitus maskers that put sound in the ear to help cover up the ringing.

One of Barr's patients, Amanda Keeton, was born deaf and uses hearing aids programmed to amplify sounds and background noises.

She also has a special pair she wears when she does judo and plays ice hockey to combat the heavy perspiration and high impact from the sports.

Her only complaint is the expense of the hearing aids, particularly since she is unemployed and lacks health insurance and disposable income.

"I wish there was more health care coverage for people with hearing loss," said Keeton, 30, of Niles, Michigan. "From my personal experience, I've always had to pay out of pocket for everything."

Luckily, she has been able to obtain the devices through the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association and a state vocational rehabilitation program.

"The technology behind hearing aids has dramatically improved over time," she said. "Each time I obtained a new pair of hearing aids, the quality surpasses the previous pair, and it amazes me every time."

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.