Barbara Orcutt got her first hearing aid at age 3, after her mother noticed the child wouldn't respond to questions when her back was turned.
As an adult, the 25-year-old Glen Burnie special education teacher would turn her hearing aid up all the way, but still feel she was missing bits of conversations.
These days, sounds all around her are clearer and more crisp. Loud background noises are less painful and annoying, even near traffic or in crowded restaurants. Soft voices are more audible. And the hearing aid doesn't beep when someone gets too close.
For this, Ms. Orcutt can thank years of laboratory research -- and the computer age.
About a month ago, Ms. Orcutt was fitted for a digital hearing aid at Chesapeake Hearing Centers in Severna Park, a hearing evaluation and diagnostic center where she's been a patient of audiologist Charles L. Hutto since she was a child.
With her old hearing aid, "There would be occasions I would hear the words, but I wouldn't be sure what the words were," said the Richard Henry Lee Elementary School special education teacher. Without a hearing aid, she'd hear sounds only directly in her ear.
"Now, it's more clear and concise. I'm better able to determine what the words are."
Mr. Hutto describes the new hearing aids, which can be programmed with a computer to specifically suit an individual wearer, as a major breakthrough in the industry.
"I've seen a lot of small changes in hearing aids over the years, but these have been very small steps," Mr. Hutto said. "This is the first super major step in sound processing in many, many years."
Unlike traditional hearing aids that make all sounds louder, the new version, developed by AT&T's Bell Laboratories during the last decade, softens the loud sounds and increases the level on the softer ones. Most hearing-impaired people have difficulty hearing with some hearing aids because of loud background noise, he said.
With the new hearing aid an audiologist can set the level of vowel sounds, which make up most of the loud background noise, and consonant sounds for a variety of situations by setting lines on a computer screen graph using a keyboard.
For instance, after testing a patient with a series of sounds, the audiologist can set vowel and consonant sounds at certain levels for a restaurant and adjust those levels for a quieter place. In the past, manufacturers adjusted the hearing aids. Audiologists could do little to custom fit their patients, Mr. Hutto said.
"You can make hearing aids like different kinds of glasses, so they work differently in different situations," Mr. Hutto said. "If we cut the vowel sounds down, patients will understand better."
So far, the return rate on the new instruments has been less than 5 percent, Mr. Hutto said. The hearing aids, with a cost range from $750 to $1,600 each, are manufactured by Redwood City, Calif.,-based ReSound Corp. and 3M Corp. Because the instruments are considered experimental, most insurance companies will not cover them.
Ms. Orcutt says she can now use pay phones or phones at home when people are talking nearby. And the clanking of dishes in restaurants isn't nearly as distracting.
"It has been a big improvement," she said. "I'm not missing anything that I know of."