A cautionary tale of hearing loss – Bionics Institute

A cautionary tale of hearing loss

Contributed by Graeme Murphy

This is a cautionary tale about hearing and what I have discovered. You need to consider your hearing like this: each of us is born with what is effectively an ‘amount’ of hearing, and this is progressively ‘used up’ in the course of living. What we don’t know is how much we are born with. Is it a little, or a lot? We only know how much we had if we start to go deaf.

One simple way of assessing if you have lost any hearing is to gently rub the back of your ear. If one side sounds different to the other, the ear with the lower pitch has lost some hearing.
There are a couple of other things that happen which are not quite as obvious as simply having trouble hearing what people say. Part of the structure of your ear is effectively an attenuator, and this part of your hearing turns the volume down. You notice this when you have been exposed to a high sound level for a period of time.
You might leave a club for example, and for a couple of minutes you will not be able to hear a thing. Gradually your hearing will return to normal. Of course as you age your ears ability to turn down the volume gradually gets damaged by high sound levels you have been exposed to.

We have all seen an older person complain that “it’s too loud”. Well, what has happened is that their ears attenuating mechanism has now worn out and their ears are operating at maximum sensitivity. It also means that the “hearing” part of your hearing will be damaged more quickly as there is nothing protecting it! In fact, it can get to the point (like in my case) that it actually hurts to hear people speaking at normal levels.

Another effect is that the loss of hearing also means a loss in yours ear’s ability to determine pitch; you go tone deaf with age. This is a real worry if you happen to be a musician. The last thing that can also come with damaged hearing is tinnitus. I have a jet plane sitting in my head permanently, it is the loudest thing I can hear. Louder than every other noise. I did this damage when I was 17 so I have learned to filter it out in the same way you can listen to one conversation and not another. It nearly drove me crazy for a while, until I figured out how to deal with it.

Most people  who have good hearing think the solution is: “just use a hearing aid”. In the same way many of us wear glasses, it’s the same isn’t it?

No, for a couple of reasons:

1. Hearing aids massively amplify sound so if your ears have lost their built in attenuator it is actually painful to have them in because they amplify the sound so greatly. Also, as a consequence of the high volume levels, your hearing loss accelerates.

2. Record some audio using your phone, then listen back to it. You hear all sorts of echoes and noise that you didn’t hear with your ears at the time. That’s what you will hear when you have a hearing aid in. There are very expensive hearing aids which try to emulate our brain’s ability to remove the echoes and listen to just one conversation among many. There are some reasonable attempts at this. The process is called beam forming and is used in radio, audio and ultrasonics. However, it is no match for someone with undamaged hearing. It is going to be many years before they approach the brains’ ability to focus on one single conversation from many.

3. My experience with a hearing aid is that because your voice is relatively loud when you speak yourself, they turn down. Then they gradually increase the volume again. So you have this situation whereby you speak and you then miss the first part of the response because the hearing aid is slowly bringing up the volume again after you have spoken.

4. If you use in-ear hearing aids, when you eat something, the volume is so loud it takes your head off! So you are completely cut out of conversation if you eat anything. And for heaven sake don’t cough!

5. Although hearing aids have built in software that attempts to differentiate between conversation and noise, it’s not very good.

The best that can be said is that a hearing aid is better than nothing, but only just! So my point is, really look after your hearing. I did the damage by simply going to a dance and standing up the front during one song when I was 17 years old. I didn’t know my ears were that sensitive and no one does until they damage them! So always have ear plugs with you, be careful using head phones and do not take risks with your hearing. Having poor hearing is breathtakingly annoying, you have to work twice as hard to follow what someone is saying because you are only able to accurately determine every second or third word. Hearing aids, to my experience, are a poor substitute.

So look after your hearing! You may have less than you think.


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