SPENCER MICHELS: Loud noise is an occupational hazard for President Clinton. Besides noisy public political appearances, doctors say his saxophone playing, rock music listening, and his hunting all during his youth probably have contributed to a moderate loss of high frequency hearing. And that has made it difficult for the President to hear in situations like this. That's why he is starting to wear small hearing aids like these at the relatively young age of 51. Such hearing loss is reported as increasingly common after age 40, even among physically robust people like the President. Rock music is often regarded as a major culprit in causing hearing loss among the young and formerly young. Although statistics are scarce, many audiologists subscribe to the notion that more and more youngsters are damaging their hearing with such loud noises.
ROBERT SWEETON, Audiologist: When we do it this way, we're then best able to calibrate how the sound--
SPENCER MICHELS: Robert Sweeton directs the audiology clinic at the University of California at San Francisco.
ROBERT SWEETON: We're exposing ourselves to more levels of noise than we ever have in the past. Noise-induced hearing loss comes on very gradually, very slowly, so you don't know that it's happening, and so you don't do anything to protect yourself from it. President Clinton now is around a lot of noisy environments where he's in crowds and things like that. And so all of that is probably adding to the difficulties he's been having with his hearing.
SPENCER MICHELS: Clinton is not the only one affected by workplace noise. Estimates are that 28 million Americans have some hearing impairment, and half are over 65. No one knows exactly how many cases are noise-induced, but only 5 million Americans use hearing aids. Gene Ghisolfo, a San Francisco property manager, was recently fitted for two of the new digital hearing aids. They cost $2,000 to $2500 each, considerably more than the older, larger type. Ghisolfo has been wearing hearing aids for 15 years and has used several kinds.
GENE GHISOLFO: In the past the background noise was amplified or over-amplified, and we couldn't really hear what was going on in front of us, such as being in the restaurant. We'd be hearing the clinking of spoons and glasses and doors closing, and that type of thing. And that would really supercede what we were actually hearing from somebody sitting across the table from us. With the latest digital hearing aids I find that has taken all of the background noise of real life here. And I'm more able to follow what's going on with people in a more closer proximity to me.
SPENCER MICHELS: Experts disagree on how much background sound the new aids eliminate, but they agree that many old-style hearing aids, like those at the Hearing Society for the Bay Area, were only of marginal help. Audiologist Jerry Friedman explains.
JERRY FRIEDMAN, Audiologist: This is an ear trumpet. You talk into the mouthpiece here, and it's fed into the person's ear through this tube.
SPENCER MICHELS: And is it supposed to work?
JERRY FRIEDMAN: They amplify it to some degree. They certainly don't have the power that the electronic hearing aids have now. These are what I call Mickey Mouse ears that allow people to funnel sound down into the ear.
SPENCER MICHELS: Can you hear anything?
JERRY FRIEDMAN: Again, they amplify slightly. They don't have the type of amplification or the amount of amplification that electronic type of hearing aids have.
SPENCER MICHELS: Even electronic aids, while useful, were awkward, broke often, and were unsightly, despite efforts to make them more cosmetic.
SPENCER MICHELS: What about this one?
JERRY FRIEDMAN: This is an example of a hearing aid that was built around a pearl necklace.
SPENCER MICHELS: In recent years a variety of hearing aids have been developed, some in the canal, some over the ear, that are smaller than before, cosmetically pleasing, and more reliable. They range in price from $700 up to $1700 for conventional, non-digital devices. But within the past year, Friedman says, the digital hearing aid has changed the picture.
JERRY FRIEDMAN: It goes clear down in the canal of the ear, and it has a little antenna, which is used to pull out the hearing aid, so that it doesn't get stuck in the ear. But this is significantly smaller than the type of hearing aid that, for example, I remember my grandma wearing, which was a body aid that she wore on the body, and it had a huge wire and receiver. It went in the ear.
SPENCER MICHELS: And it was always humming.
JERRY FRIEDMAN: It was always humming. Well, there is feedback that's caused by hearing aids. There's a lot of ways in which circuitry in hearing aids nowadays can eliminate that humming or that feedback.
SPENCER MICHELS: But even with modern testing techniques and the new digital technology audiologists like those here at the University of California Audiology Clinic asserts that even the most advanced hearing aids don't correct hearing the way eyeglasses correct vision.
ROBERT SWEETON: They appear right now to be quite a bit better than some of the other hearing aids that are available, but they're not new ears. They're not replacements for one's ears. And with the digital hearing aids I think that they improve a person's listening ability in a wide variety of situations, but, again, in those situations that if the President is outside, greeting throngs of admirers or non-admirers, as they may be, he's going to have difficulty hearing what the press is saying to him, for example. If, on the other hand, he's at a small gathering, where he has just a few people talking around him at the same time, I think that these digital hearing aids might be very, very useful for him.
SPENCER MICHELS: Sweeton is bothered by reports that the President won't wear his hearing aids all the time.
ROBERT SWEETON: If somebody gets hearing aids, they need to give them a chance, they need to wear them on a frequent basis so that their brain has a chance to acclimate to this new sound that's coming in from their ears. If he only wears them in very noisy environments, he's never going to give his brain a chance to acclimate to this new sound, and he's also forcing his hearing into the absolute worst possible predicaments for the hearing aid to process.
SPENCER MICHELS: Is there a hearing aid that is made today that can actually cut out the background noise in say a cocktail party situation?
ROBERT SWEETON: The answer is, no, there is no hearing aid. And the reason is because background noise is made up of a lot of the same energy that speech is made up of. So if you had a hearing aid that cut out all the background noise, you would also cut holes in the speech.
SPENCER MICHELS: Sweeton says that less expensive, slightly larger hearing aids may be adequate for the President, though he has chosen the smaller ones.
ROBERT SWEETON: He, of course, opted for hearing aids that are cosmetically quite appealing, and that too, while I think it's a wonderful thing for the hearing-impaired world that the President is acknowledging that he has a hearing loss, here's a man 50 years old who's acknowledging that hearing loss is not limited only to older folks, I would like to see people also recognize the fact that you don't have to hide the hearing aid by going to something extremely small.
SPENCER MICHELS: Audiologists and hearing societies say they are hoping that the disclosure of the President's hearing impairment and his new hearing aids will remove some of the stigma that traditionally has surrounded loss of hearing.