Smartphone app helps University of Iowa researchers improve hearing aids

Study hopes to engage seniors on project

Researchers at the University of Iowa, as part of the Center on Aging, have been working to improve the quality and responsiveness of hearing aids with the help of a smartphone application.

“You can think of this like a survey,” said Octav Chipara, a lead researcher on the study and an assistant professor in computer science at the University of Iowa. “It will allow us to access how well a person is hearing in that environment.”

Chipara said that there are around 38 participants in the study who use the smartphone app to state how their hearing aid is working in specific situations from conversations to listening to wildlife.

“What we really want to do is to be able to have everybody wearing hearing aids connected to the Cloud and essentially you have this ability to tailor the hearing aid to the specific condition that the person is in,” said Chipara of the long term goal of the project. He explained that they are just “taking the first big steps” of the project.

The survey participants are answering on the smartphone app is allowing Chipara and other researchers to understand how hearing aids function in varying environments. Chipara explained that past studies have either put participants in a hearing booth, which he said could not always effectively emulate real world activities, or studies have had participants record experiences in a diary, which can have issues with the participant properly collecting data in a timely manner.

“The advantage of a smartphone here is that when you’re delivering this questionnaire to the users they can essentially fill them out in the moment,” said Chipara. “The issue of memory doesn’t come in to play anymore.”

The study is also looking at two different types of hearing aids, one being more expensive than the other, to gauge if consumers are getting a higher quality hearing aid when they pay more.

The Center on Aging is taking part in the study to act as a resource to the public on the project, as well as help find participants.

“We’re that piece that brings the research out to the community,” said Susan Schultz, a psychiatry professor and co-director of the Center on Aging at the UI with Bernd Fritzsch. “It’s just really neat when we make that engagement.”

Schultz explained that the Center on Aging helps to raise the profile of the research project to seniors so they are aware of the study and can use the information to either choose to participate in the project, or use it in their day to day lives to stay healthy as they age.

“We don’t know how to improve aging unless they (seniors) tell us,” said Schultz on the importance of seniors being involved with such studies. “We want to be that go to resource for those wanting to know what’s happening in aging.”

Chipara said that hearing loss is the third most common chronic condition in the elderly, making it a prevalent topic.

“We’re trying to understand all of the different activities that people may be engaging in,” said Chipara. He explained that half of the individuals who use hearing aids report that they are not satisfied with how their hearing aids are working. “This could help us to better customize how hearing aids are tuned for each one of these persons needs.”

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