Hear hear! Hearing loss problems and why you should look after your ears
Posted Oct 21 2011 6:31am
Most people take their ability to hear for granted, it’s not until someone starts to lose their hearing that they realise what they have lost.
Modern hearing aids do an excellent job of helping those with hearing loss to hear better. But a hearing aid cannot give you back the perfect hearing that you had when you were young, it can only amplify and modify the sounds coming into your ear so that whatever hearing you have left can be best used for you to understand sounds and voices. This is a big frustration for people buying hearing aids and they often feel that their (usually expensive) purchase was a waste as they don’t hear as much as they expected to. There’s no doubt that sometime in the future we will have some kind of hearing restoration device, but for now, it’s best to try and look after the hearing you have. In fact, Cochlear implants already exist, which are fundamentally different to hearing aids and do more or less restore your hearing by bypassing completely your damaged ears – these are usually only fitted to people with profound hearing loss and are very expensive.
When you hear, there is a lot more going on than you might think. It’s not just about the loudness of things, if it were, then hearing aids would be simple devices and we would all be able to hear perfectly with them. You have a natural ability to pinpoint the source of a sound (called localizing), you can hear where it is coming from, if you stand in a field and listen to the birds chirping you know which trees they are in. Animals do this too and many of them can swivel their ears to help localize sounds, which I guess helps to know where to run from predators. When you suffer from a hearing loss you start to lose this ability and wearing a hearing aid can make it harder too.
You can tune-out the things you don’t want to hear. When you are in a busy restaurant you can hear your friends around your table talking above the noise of the people from the next table – your ears and brain work in tandem to focus on the sounds that you are really interested in and all the other sounds are filtered out to become background noise. This is the holy-grail of hearing aids, perfect speech understanding in noise, they do an excellent job but are not perfect and the worse your hearing is that harder it will be to understand voices in noise.
Hearing isn’t just about volume. If you have a hearing loss then you will often be able to hear someone talking but not be able to understand what they are saying. You can buy a hearing aid that goes as loud as you like but you still won’t understand what they are saying as you’ve lost your ability to discriminate sounds. Often, when you go for a hearing test you will be given a hearing discrimination test, this is used by the audiologist to determine how much hearing aids will benefit you.
Speech discrimination is something we learned, when we were young we learnt to talk and to understand what others were saying. Our brains learned the meaning of words. If you hear a foreign language for the first time then it sounds like gibberish and it is even hard to pick out the words to begin with, you brain doesn’t know how to process those words. As you lose your ability to hear, and you are hearing less words clearly, your brain stops having to process those words and over time its ability to discriminate words diminishes – it’s like a muscle, use it less and it shrinks. So if you leave your hearing loss untreated for a number of years then your brain is not getting a good word-workout and when you finally do get a hearing aid you still have the problem of weakened speech discrimination. Another reason why people get frustrated with a hearing aid. We hear with our ears but listen with our brains.
PROTECT YOUR HEARING
It is very easy for me to sit here and tell you to look after your hearing. I’ve had a hearing loss since I was 5 so I do everything I can to protect what hearing I have left. I am acutely aware of what I’ve lost, and continue to lose as the years roll by. But I don’t protect my eyesight in the same way, don’t worry about my heart, or my legs, or my back – these are not a problem for me. I might have a heart attack when I’m older, I might get a bad back due to my bad posture at work, years of playing football are probably going to give me knee pain in years to come. I don’t care about those things, they don’t affect me now, I’ll deal with them later. People with normal hearing are the same, they hear wonderfully so why worry? Deal with that later. It’s not until we lose something that we realise what we’ve lost.