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Digby Cook is the editor of hearinglossjournal.com (Dylan Cook)
Digby Cook is the editor of hearinglossjournal.com (Dylan Cook)

Digby Cook

What I learned when I began to lose my hearing Add to ...

Digby Cook is the editor of hearinglossjournal.com

The Ramones were only a few feet away. Flanked by stacks of amps, they launched into a sonic assault that rattled the small nightclub, and left my ears ringing for days.

Alas, Joey and most of the boys are all gone now, and so is half my hearing.

I was about 50 when I began to notice that people were mumbling, some of their words were going missing and songbirds had stopped singing. “Pardon?” became my frequent contribution to conversations. My hearing was fading prematurely, particularly my ability to distinguish higher-frequency sounds.

I am not alone. According to Statistics Canada, about 20 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 19 and 79 report they have some degree of hearing loss. Those numbers aren’t to be trusted since so many people simply refuse to admit they have a problem.

I have struggled to overcome my own tendency toward denial, and even now I write this with some trepidation. No one wants to concede they are getting older, or fess up to having an embarrassing affliction.

It’s an invisible handicap but the deniers are easy for me to spot. They cock their heads to one side in an unconscious attempt to aim their better ear toward someone. They inject off-topic non sequiturs into conversations. Or they nod and smile when I tell them an old friend has died.

I now sport hearing aids in part because I don’t want people to think I am an idiot.

We are all losing our hearing from virtually the day we are born. We arrive in this world equipped with about 30,000 hair cells, those tiny vibration detectors in the cochlea. They convert the vibrations from our ear drums into electrical signals that are sent to the brain.

They are killed off over the years by noise-induced damage, certain drugs or a genetic predisposition. Once they are gone, they never grow back.

I am losing those precious cells at a faster rate than most. That’s likely due to a rogue gene that makes me more susceptible to noise damage. It was passed onto me by my mother and she is now almost completely deaf.

I am pretty sure that Frank Sinatra never performed at jet-engine decibel levels so I fear that I am going deaf at faster rate than her. But I refuse to surrender to silence.

My hearing aids are indispensable. Without them, I understand only about 40 per cent of what’s being said. With them on, I score about 90 per cent on word-recognition tests, which means I am fairly functional. But that number drops dramatically in a crowded room or if I am confronted with a low talker.

Today’s hearing aids are marvellous pieces of technology. No longer are they crude amplifiers that simply pump up the volume. Now they can capture sound, then process it and deliver the specific frequencies that you are missing. They have evolved into mini-computers that are the product of the same digital revolution that produced the cellphone.

My new hearing aids connect to my phone invisibly via a wireless Bluetooth connection. That allows me to clearly hear phone calls or music, and to adjust them for better sound in different environments.

They can also perform another neat trick. With a couple of clicks I can set them so that they receive the sound from my phone’s microphone. Then I can discreetly slide the phone across the table a spot near the person talking so the speaker’s voice is isolated and clearer. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I can also leave the room and hear what people are saying about me.

When I look to the future I sometimes wish I were a chicken. Researchers have discovered that if you deafen a chicken by killing its hair cells, within a few days they grow back. That’s raised the tantalizing question: What if there’s a way to make human hair cells perform the same trick?

Or maybe I should wish that I were a mouse. In the natural scheme of things, mice, like other mammals including us, cannot regrow dead hair cells. But now they can, at least in the laboratory. There is now a worldwide hunt under way for a cure for hearing loss, including some great work being done at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Research Institute.

One researcher told me that Big Pharma has finally woken up, and is devoting more and more resources to the search. No surprise there since my fellow boomers are well on the way to becoming the deafest generation. The demand for any cure would be astronomical.

Novartis AG is already conducting human trials on one promising biopharmaceutical agent called CFG166. Of course if it is ever approved, the company’s marketing department will likely christen it “Hearagra” or some such silly Latinate brand name.

The consensus among the researchers is that it will be at least five to 10 years before any treatment that could even remotely be called a cure will come to market.

In the meantime, I take heart in knowing that hearing aids and cochlear implants are getting better and better.

Still, as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I was reminded of that old saw recently at a Maple Leafs game. The players were propelled onto the ice for the faceoff by a deluge of decibels courtesy of AC/DC. My wife covered her ears and I turned off my hearing aids. I still heard the riffs too loud if not too clear.

A young family were sitting a couple of rows below us. Their two little boys leapt to their feet and bounced up and down with excitement. Both of them were wearing ear protectors of the sort used by ground crews at airports.

Smart parents, I thought. Yet after the game it seemed virtually every fan under 30 began popping in their ear buds as they were leaving the building. They probably weren’t listening to the Ramones – but I imagined I could hear the screams of dying hair cells.

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