Have you ever watched Star Trek? On that show–and its many iterations–doctors could monitor your health by waving a small, salt-shaker-sized device over your head. It’s a brilliantly conceived device, and scientists have been trying to create a real-life version for decades. (Turns out it’s easier to paint a salt-shaker than it is to create a handheld medical sensor.) But we’re almost there. And the newest health monitoring devices don’t look like a salt-shaker at all.
It looks like a hearing aid.
Um… because it is a hearing aid. Maybe that’s a little hard to believe. Most people categorize hearing aids as a kind of unitasker. They think it’s only supposed to do one thing: help you hear. But hearing aid manufacturers have been incorporating more and more cutting-edge technology into these tiny devices. Modern hearing aids can do a lot more than simply amplify sounds.
How a hearing aid monitors your health
The first question you’re asking probably has to do with the hearing aid itself: how in the world can a tiny device placed in your ear effectively monitor your health and wellbeing? What’s more, how can it do all this monitoring and help you hear at the same time?
Those are… good questions. But in the age of supercomputing mobile phones that fit comfortably in your pocket, tiny health monitoring computers that fit snugly in your ears don’t seem all that far-fetched.
Here’s how it works: a modern hearing aid’s primary function is still amplifying certain sounds to make them easier to hear. Which sounds the device amplifies will vary depending on the person wearing the hearing aid–or, maybe, on the room you’re in. Modern, “smart” hearing aids are quite adept at optimizing their output in even the most challenging surroundings (we’re talking rooms with high ceilings, noisy restaurants, crowded auditoriums–you get the idea).
In order to function at peak efficiency when adapting to your environment, hearing aids are equipped with any number of sensors. It’s a relatively small matter (no pun intended) to take the data from those sensors and make some educated assessments regarding your health.
Some technology companies have even created health monitoring AI suites that integrate with your smartphone to provide you with the following data:
- Fall: A fall can seem like a rather mundane event. You trip over an extension cord, and, uh, you get back up. No big deal, right? But as the years catch up with you, falls can turn into a bigger problem, largely because getting back up isn’t as easy as it used to be and because as you get older, your bones become more fragile. Some of these sophisticated, health monitoring hearing aids can watch for a fall and send text message alerts to a family member should a tumble occur. This means you won’t have to spend the whole night on the floor–you can get help a lot sooner!
- Activity: In the same way that your Fitbit counts your steps, your hearing aids can keep track of your movements. Health monitoring AI algorithms are designed to monitor your activity and let you know whether you’re engaged in a healthy lifestyle or not (these devices will also often recommend a course of action to ensure you’re staying active). So your hearing aids will be able to tell whether you’re getting enough exercise.
- Heart rate: You can tell a lot about your health by what your heart is doing. That’s why your heart rate is important data–whether that’s your heart rate when you’re resting or engaged in various activities (mowing the lawn or shoveling the driveway, for example). The more information you have about your heart, the more informed your decisions will be–and the more likely you are to catch various issues earlier rather than later.
All of this information is recorded and sent to a smartphone app, so you can analyze, synthesize, and interact with all this data.
The future is limitless
It’s impossible to tell just how detailed these measurements, algorithms, and datasets will become in the future. It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that, within a few years, your hearing aids will be able to monitor all kinds of other data: blood pressure, white blood cell count, infections–who knows?
And what’s more, the same technology enables the hearing aid to perform its primary function at an even higher level. In the future, these devices will continue to help you stay healthy and hear better. That could be a future even better than the one you saw on Star Trek.