Eargym Uses App-Based Auditory Training To Delay The Need For Hearing Aids

3 months ago
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For this year’s World Hearing Day which was celebrated across the globe this past Sunday, important themes related to tackling societal misperceptions and stigmatizing mindsets surrounding hearing loss took center stage. At the same time, the World Health Organization now estimates that unaddressed hearing loss poses an annual cost of $980 billion to the global economy due to inadequate access to rehabilitation services and its knock-on effects on productivity and social exclusion.

U.K.-based digital health startup eargym is looking to improve the quality of life for patients living with mild to moderate hearing loss who may not yet require hearing aids but may well be on the road to needing them in the next few years by helping them to fine-tune their auditory perception and listening skills through bespoke training. This significant group of patients is particularly vulnerable for several reasons.

Firstly, perhaps due in great part to those related social stigmas highlighted during World Hearing Day, according to the National Library of Medicine, adults with hearing loss tend to wait an average of 8.9 years before seeking help. Pricing is also a major accessibility barrier despite efforts in recent years to increase the availability of over-the-counter hearing aids in the U.S. A good quality pair of hearing aids can still set you back several thousand dollars.

That’s not to mention the age-related risk factors. The average age of a first-time hearing aid wearer in the U.K. is around 75. They’re likely to have suffered in silence for many years previously whilst the correlation between hearing loss as one of the largest modifiable risk factors for dementia remains stark. As for younger people, only the decades to come will reveal the true long-term effects on hearing health of ubiquitous access to loud music through powerful wireless headphones and smartphones.

eargym, which was founded in 2020 by former National Health Service Chief Executive Amanda Philpott and DJ Andy Shanks who both live with a degree of hearing loss, takes a gamified approach to immersive auditory brain training focusing on differentiating certain sounds and applying contextual meaning. Users of the app which is available on both iOS and Android take on fun challenges such as “busy barista” in which users need to discern various sounds within a hectic café environment with lots of background noise. There is also a sound-seeking exercise where users navigate forests, jungles and oceans listening out for distinct audio cues.

The games, where the level of challenge can be adjusted, are intended to help users hone the kind of auditory processing skills required in real-life scenarios that individuals starting their hearing loss journey can begin to find extremely challenging. Key aspects of this were outlined during an interview conducted over email with Maddison Tutton a specialist audiologist based at the Chavin Medical Practice in Leeds.

“Hearing training is a non-invasive tool that can make it easier for us to identify and process sounds through regular exposure and practice. Effective hearing training resources should simulate real-life environments and use immersive audio to help train our brains to hear speech in noisy places, whilst also strengthening our hearing and cognitive skills,” explains Tutton.

“It works because listening happens in the brain. One of the most common complaints among people with hearing loss is difficulty understanding speech in background noise. We can still hear the conversations around us, but it becomes harder to apply meaning to sound. Hearing training helps us improve focus and speech perception, so we can train our brains to get more out of the sounds we hear.”

According to an internal study by eargym, users should expect to see up to 20% improvement in listening performance within seven weeks based on training three to five times a week for five minutes. In the small study involving 22 participants with an average age of 63, 83% of participants agreed that eargym’s training games improved their hearing skills and 68% reported an improvement in their ability to hear conversations in noisy places.

eargym does not claim that auditory training is a replacement for hearing aids but could represent a way of delaying the necessity to use them by prolonging and maximizing existing listening performance for as long as possible.

Responsibly, on the other side of the technology stack is a baseline testing process to guide patients who present at the more severe end of the hearing loss spectrum towards professional audiology services.

“Hearing aids are really good in many cases,” says eargym CEO Amanda Philpott who now uses the devices herself.

“But people are still quite frightened of coming across as frail and the costs can be extremely high. When we started out, we did a lot of research into what alternative solutions could exist for early intervention, prevention and raising awareness. We saw that there was an opportunity to make training to help caring for our hearing health more affordable and more accessible.”

This is key as many apps in the auditory training space either target specialized, non-disability markets such as musicians or are more expensively priced solely as a bolt-on to professional audiology services.

Philpott continues, “If you go to a High St audiologist and they say that they can’t really help you at the moment because your thresholds of hearing loss aren’t quite there or indeed the person isn’t psychologically ready for hearing aids yet — then being able to offer something that can prolong hearing health is a desirable tool to be able to discuss. It keeps the patient in the loop and thinking about their hearing. It’s a handoff that makes sense and makes for a better consumer experience.”

Being able to form these types of industry relationships and referral pathways is likely to be pivotal to eargym’s future growth. This will need to be allied with the production of larger and more robust data sets on the efficacy of auditory training. The company’s gamified approach is sure to assist with this. Additionally, more specific insights are required on vital areas such as how long training needs to continue to ensure that gains do not slip back and whether the advanced brain exercises can be used in novel clinical applications such as becoming accustomed to and onboarding new hearing aids.…Read more by Gus Alexiou

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