Hearing Aids for Tracking and Improving Your Health: The 2022 Phonak Audéo Fit Media Event

Evidence for why “Well-Hearing is Well-Being”

How hearing aids can improve your health and become an important component in tracking health status were the themes of a recent media event titled “From Technology to Well Being” held in Amsterdam on June 14 by Phonak, the world’s largest manufacturer of hearing aids.

Health and Fitness Phonak Audéo Fit Event

Phonak’s VP of Audiology and Health Innovation Stefan Launer, PhD, says humans are the “decathletes of hearing” due to our ears’ and the brain’s ability to translate sound into meaning.

Phonak has just released Audéo Fit, a receiver-in-the-canal (RIC) hearing aid that is the first ever to provide users with data about their heart rate. Although this is something that other manufacturers have promised, Phonak is the first to come up with the goods. The new device also records steps, activity levels, distances walked or run, and listening situations encountered over time (some Starkey hearing aids also record similar data). Despite the obvious importance of the new hearing aid to Phonak, much of the media event focused more on how new hearing aid technology can positively impact health status and quality of life.

As a practicing audiologist in London, I’m acutely aware that hearing healthcare plays an essential role in physical and mental health: I see proof of this every day from our clients and referring physicians. Additionally, medical research continues to link hearing loss with numerous chronic illnesses, reduced physical activity, and lifestyle limitations. Not surprisingly, the hearing industry has quickly tuned into this message and its broader implications: future hearing aid technology should expand to encourage healthier habits while providing data on health status, where appropriate.

The media event was kicked off by Jon Billings, VP of Phonak Marketing, and Florence Camenzind, Senior Manager for Public Relations, who made introductions and set the stage for the topics covered. This included a short overview of how social-emotional, physical, and cognitive factors affect our wellbeing, and how hearing is an instrumental part of healthcare—reminding attendees that the Phonak philosophy is “Well-Hearing is Well-Being.”

The role of hearing in the evolution of the social animal

As the media event had an emphasis on holistic health, we were first given a 10-minute demonstration on meditation by Maren Stropahl, before being introduced to Phonak’s VP of Audiology and Health Innovation, Stefan Launer, PhD.  Dr. Launer showed how our hearing ability has played a huge role in human evolution, helping our species ascend to the top of the food chain. He described humans as the “decathletes of hearing”; although some animals possess greater hearing acuity, humans are uniquely able to identify subtle differences in frequencies (pitch) that enable our brains to process complex language and communication. Hearing never sleeps: it’s a 24/7 360-degree snapshot of our surroundings that provides awareness, safety, and social bonding.

Dr. Launer showed how our unique hearing advantage led to more highly-evolved behaviors, like coordinating and planning during food gathering and defense. It also led to social bonding and security—after all, we rely almost completely on auditory information when in the dark—as well as the sharing of beliefs, stories, and alliance building around campfires.

Laughter and music have also played essential roles in human evolution, says Dr. Launer. It’s essential for animals to convey, either through gesture or sound, when they want to play or when fighting is not serious combat. Humans do the same. Similarly, laughter really is contagious; it’s a way we bond socially through puns, joke telling, and unexpected messaging. Scientists think it’s likely music and language evolved simultaneously, with music’s melody, rhythm, and emphasis, and languages’ different rules of grammar and syntax influencing each other. And music, storytelling, and humor provided a transgenerational framework for relating our shared histories, knowledge, values, and culture.

In other words, our hearing and auditory processing abilities—in large part—made us who we are.

Hearing loss and its impact on health and quality of life

The flip side to the tremendous importance of hearing, says Dr. Launer, is that losing one’s hearing results in a variety of serious problems and social stress factors, robbing us of our ability to communicate easily, confidently, and effectively. This can lead to a cascade of the socio-emotional health and quality-of-life (QoL) problems that, if left untreated, can lead to anxiety, withdrawal, social isolation, reduced physical activity and self-esteem, and poorer health.

Cascade of negative effects from hearing loss

Hearing loss can lead to a cascade of negative consequences, starting with an inability to easily understand speech, resulting in anxiety, social withdrawal, and reduced engagement with others, as well as reduced physical activity in general.

As Beethoven noted in 1802: “...I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf...”

How hearing aids re-engage people…and improve health

Hearing aid technology and amplification have improved as our knowledge of psychoacoustics has increased, says Dr. Launer. We now have many strategies for increasing speech understanding and comfort while reducing noise. These include directional microphones, frequency compression, noise cancellation, sophisticated speech-enhancement algorithms, and artificial intelligence (AI) that can identify the listening situation you’re in and make thousands of adjustments each second to best suit your individual hearing needs.

The bottom line, says Launder, is that studies show hearing aid users benefit from:

  • Improved audibility of sounds
  • Increased speech understanding and communication
  • Better speech production and language acquisition
  • Increased occupational and economic status
  • Greater enjoyment of music
  • Improved tinnitus perception (e.g., masking of tinnitus)
  • Better self-esteem, social interaction, and quality of life
  • Decreased fatigue and mental stress, and better concentration and sleep quality

Increasingly, research is also linking better hearing with decreased risk for cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Wearing hearing aids increases social engagement and physical activity

Dr. Launer also previewed study results from anonymous usage data of 675,000 Phonak hearing aid users across 4 continents. The findings indicate surprisingly similar hearing aid use for people with very different levels of hearing loss. The study shows the percentage of people with profound losses who wear hearing aids for 7-17 hours per day is 73%, while those with normal-to-moderate losses is 71%. With this in mind, rather than hearing aid users having to wear multiple pieces of technology to improve their quality of life, combining technologies is an obvious step forward—“loading up” hearing aids with as much tech as possible to branch into the healthable space.

Hearing loss is also associated with lower levels of physical activity and poorer health. Poor hearing has been linked in many studies to reduced physical activity in older adults (≥50 years) and a variety of physical limitations for older people ( ≥60 years), like walking or taking the stairs, as well as restrictions in leisure activities.

Importantly, social engagement continually emerges as a top factor in longevity and healthy aging. A 2010 review published in the journal PloS Medicine found, across 148 studies, a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships. “Receiving social support” and “Being socially integrated” are consistently top predictors of “mortality status.” Social creatures need social interaction, and people who are socially engaged are likelier to live longer, happier, healthier lives.

Unleashing the power of better health monitoring with hearing aids

All the above strongly suggests that hearing health has a substantial impact on overall physical health and fitness. Leo den Hartog, Phonak’s Senior Product Director, succinctly summarized a virtual mountain of evidence that links frequent physical activity to better health—which is the reason why the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at least 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate-to-intensity aerobic activity per week. 

My interview with Phonak's Leo den Hartog about the new Audéo Fit hearing aid and its health tracking capabilities. Closed captions are available on this video. If you are using a mobile phone, please enable captions clicking on the gear icon.

According to Leo den Hartog, the ear is an excellent place to monitor health parameters and record activity. Some have even said that “the ear is the new wrist” when it comes to monitoring things like heart rate. Unlike the wrist, which is full of active muscles and tendons, the ear canal is made of inert cartilage that doesn’t skew data recordings with “artifacts”. Arteries are also closer to the surface of the skin in the ear canal (versus the wrist), yielding a much stronger signal in the ear canal.

Audéo Fit: A hearing aid with a health/fitness tracking component

Phonak introduced Audéo Fit as the first hearing aid to track heart rate for health insights. It does this by using LED optical sensors on the surface of the hearing aid receiver. A technique called photoplethysmography (PPG) estimates artery volume using these sensors, which are also known as photodetectors. In a nutshell, the light reflects the volume of the blood, and allows for determination of your heart rate. 

Audeo Fit photodetector sensors

The hearing aid receiver contains several tiny photodetectors which are used to gather information for determination of your heart rate. The MyPhonak app (on right) also shows other fitness parameters like step counting.

Your heart rate can be viewed on the MyPhonak app—which has been completely revamped and updated for the new fitness features as well as (rejoice!) better wireless connectivity—for on-demand heart rate, daily heart rate, and resting heart rate. Additionally, the app now provides more specific information about the listening situations you’ve encountered during the day, week, or month, and also functions as a step counter similar to the popular FitBit watch. 

My media colleagues and I were able to try out the new Audéo Fit in a real-life setting: the huge Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Phonak loaned us an iPhone installed with the new MyPhonak app. We then visited the museum with a tour guide who provided us information about art works from Rembrandt and other famous artists. The guide used Phonak’s Roger remote microphone system to stream the sound of her voice directly into our hearing aids, making it seem like she was right next to us throughout the tour. The experience was an exceptional demonstration for how Roger can work in real life. 

The updated MyPhonak app also provides quite a lot of user control over the hearing aid. While at the museum, I took a short video of my smartphone screen to give you an idea of some metrics recorded by the app. The video starts out with my manipulating the Roger remote listening system controls, then moves to health data like wearing time, daily steps, and heart rate. (Note: there is no audio for this video.)

Increasing integration of hearing aid and healthcare technology

Market researchers have predicted that 105 million fitness tracking devices will be sold in 2022, according to den Hartog. This is more than 5 times the number of hearing aids (about 17-20 million) sold globally. Obviously, this shows that there are a lot of people interested in monitoring and improving their health, and the step count and wearing metrics built into the new MyPhonak app—as well as the heart rate data supplied in Audéo Fit hearing aids—should prove to be useful and appealing features. 

As a clinician who regularly weighs the pros, cons, and costs of hearing aids for my patients, I think the heftier price tag for Audéo Fit will only appeal to those patients who place a premium on the new health and fitness data. Yet, as demonstrated by the 105 million fitness-tracking devices to be purchased this year, that may be more than enough to justify these new innovations from Phonak! 

In my view, the primary benefit of any hearing aid will always be its ability to provide users with exceptional hearing improvement. Audéo Fit, which is built on Phonak’s Paradise platform, features exceptional sound quality, as well as universal Bluetooth streaming for connecting to smartphones, TVs, and other compatible devices. Look for an upcoming HearingTracker video where I’ll provide more details about Audéo Fit and my audiological perspectives on the product, and in the meantime, check out my review of Phonak’s Paradise platform:

Closed captions are available on this video. If you are using a mobile phone, please enable captions clicking on the gear icon.

Audéo Fit as a great step that counts

It seems increasingly obvious that hearing healthcare and general healthcare are really the same thing. I think Audéo Fit represents a positive step forward in the technical evolution of the hearing aid as a vital, holistic component for tracking healthcare metrics.  I am extremely excited by the R&D being poured into audiology, and things like health tracking data may be the foundations on which hearing aids are built on in the future.

At the same time I hope that the likes of Phonak don’t lose sight of why hearing care providers do the job that we do, and continue to research primarily on improving the ability for hearing aid users to hear well in groups, crowds, and noisy environments—which is still the main challenge that patients complain about on a daily basis.

The Phonak Audéo Fit is part of  a big rollout of new technology from Phonak, including the Paradise Virto, Life and Slim, and it pleases me that Phonak is looking at these alternatives to encourage as many people as possible to start managing their hearing loss early. As we all know, the earlier a hearing loss is managed, then not only does it improve quality for life from a hearing point of view, but also positively contributes to reducing the comorbidities discussed earlier in this article.

Make sure you check out the HearingTracker YouTube channel for my ongoing reviews of this technology.