Health Care

From Ronald Reagan's Hearing Aid to Cyborg Ears for Baby Boomers


President Ronald Reagan at Ellis Island on May 3, 1987

Photograph by Diana Walker/Liaison

President Ronald Reagan at Ellis Island on May 3, 1987

(Corrects full name of Starkey Hearing Technologies in the first paragraph.)

This September marked a peculiar anniversary: It’s now been 30 years since Ronald Reagan got fitted for a hearing aid in the Oval Office. Not unlike Katie Couric’s live colonoscopy 17 years later, Reagan’s fitting was a watershed moment for hearing loss—and for the aural device market. ”The industry in the U.S. doubled over the following year,” says Jerry Ruzicka, president of Starkey Hearing Technologies, the company that manufactured Reagan’s device. “I’ve been in the business for 36 years, and nothing has had that impact.”

Hearing aid makers are on the verge of another heyday. It’s estimated that 40 percent to 50 percent of adults older than 75 need hearing aids, and Americans are rapidly getting older and deafer: According to AARP, baby boomers will be turning 65 at a rate of 8,000 per day for the next 16 years. On top of that, 32 million uninsured Americans expect to gain health coverage through 2019 due to Obamacare, and federal funding for Medicaid is expected to rise, which will help people pay for medically necessary hearing aids. According to analysts at IBIS World, the industry’s revenue will increase at an estimated average annual rate of 2.8 percent to $2.2 billion through 2018.

In 1983, when Reagan got his hearing aid, the technology had already come a long way. Some early prototypes weighed as much as seven pounds; others required people to wear vest-like devices with vacuum tubes. When Reagan, then 72, sought treatment it, “let the public know that there was something out there that was very small and comfortable to wear,” says Ruzicka.

Hearing aids these days are, of course, far more advanced. While Reagan’s was a simple electronic device with a few transistors, we now have “smart” digital hearing aids with millions of transistors that differentiate between various types of sound. Some new models can be set up to connect wirelessly to appliances, such as televisions and stereos. Some are so small that they fit into the ear canal, entirely hidden from site. Scientists are even developing 3D-printed bionic ears that can hear better than human ears. With technology rapidly improving, Ruzicka says we can look forward to a day when “hearing impaired people will do better in difficult listening situations than people who don’t wear hearing aids.”

Reagan’s hearing problems dated back to the 1930s, when a .38-caliber pistol was fired near his right ear on a movie set. When Starkey first received the president’s hearing evaluation and physical impressions of the president’s ear, the company didn’t realize who they were dealing with and initially lost track of the order.

These days, Ruzicka keeps the impression of Reagan’s right ear—arguably the most important artifact of the hearing aid industry—hidden in his office, so it doesn’t get misplaced. Starkey plans to display the model once it opens an internal museum later this year. Says Ruzicka: “We’ve been saving it for 30 years.”

Cwinter
Winter is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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