Are Your Ears Trying to Protect Themselves?

Our senses have warning systems to alert us to possible dangers. A bitter taste warns us away from poisons. A putrid smell alerts us that food may not be safe to eat. Our eyes close automatically when exposed to a flash of light. Pain receptors in our skin warn us to pull away from something hot.

But what about hearing? We all know that noise damages our hearing, and most of us have thought of hearing as an anomaly among the senses: the only one without a defense mechanism.

Lab mouseNow researchers think they have discovered a pain receptor system in the ears, and it may be why we instinctively put our fingers in our ears or clap our hands over them when we hear an ambulance or a jackhammer or other loud noise…..

Read more about why this may be a breakthrough for #tinnitus and #hyperacusis sufferers at @aarp health/katherine bouton

A Simple Solution for Remembering Names

You’ve probably heard the tips. Visualize something about the person that will remind you of the name: Rose — the woman wearing the pink sweater. Spike — the guy with the hair. Repeat the name either mentally or out loud.

But that doesn’t always help. Maybe you’re at a business meeting with new clients. They’re all dressed alike. They all look alike, for that matter. Who’s who? What did he say? Or a cocktail party. Even social chatter can be uncomfortable if you can’t hear the person’s name.iStock_000035830680Medium

Senior moment? Maybe. Symptoms of what we call normal age-related hearing loss can be alarming but are generally not indicative of serious decline. If you sometimes forget a name, occasionally have to search for a word, misplace your keys, you probably shouldn’t worry. If these things happen on a regular basis and seem to be increasing in frequency, you should have a test to see if you might have MCI, mild cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s.

But if your problem is failing to remember the names or occupations or interests of people you meet, the cause may be much simpler and easily corrected. Perhaps you are just not hearing them.

If you have to work to hear, which is the case with even mild hearing loss in a noisy environment — at a party, an office gathering, on the street — your cognitive energies are focused on deciphering what is said. You’re introduced to someone whose name you don’t get. You ask him to repeat it. You still don’t quite get it. The conversation goes on from there, and within a couple of minutes you’ve lost track of the subject. You’re guessing at responses, making noncommittal replies, smiling and nodding your head. And then when you walk away you have no idea who you were talking to, or what you were talking about.

Sound familiar? Before you panic about early-onset dementia, have your hearing tested. Hearing aids, or hearing-aid-like devices, can be a quick fix. Directional microphones allow you to focus on the person speaking. Add assistive listening devices like the Phonak Roger pen or a Pocket Talker and you may hear more clearly than anyone else in the room.

Hearing better can make those social and business encounters less stressful. More important, hearing better may help stave off cognitive decline. Hearing clearly leaves greater cognitive reserve for remembering, responding, analyzing and even thinking.

Watch the woman with the gray hair in the video below (and listen to the babble). Her body language says she’s uneasy, turning away and turning back. Maybe it’s because she can’t really hear over all those voices? I can relate to that.

Photo: Galaxia/iStock; Video: Viafilms/iStock

This post first appeared on AARP-Health, Feb 18, 2015.

Hearing With a Hat

One thing no one ever mentions about hearing loss is how much harder it is to hear with a hat on. Hats are something we in the northeast have been wearing for weeks now. Sometimes indoors as well as outdoors, as the temperature drops into the minus degrees.imgres-1

I have lots of friends with hearing loss in Canada and Minnesota and I never hear them mention hats. Maybe it’s because they wear them year round and so think that the way they hear with a hat on is normal.

If you wear a hat AND live in a windy area — say just off Lake Ontario or the Hudson River (that’s me) — forget it. I haven’t heard out of doors since before Christmas.

How about that hat!

Famous Rock Concerts that Blew Minds — and Ears

Were you at the Cream reunion in New York in 1968? Think that might be where you lost your hearing? That’s where Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker say their hearing problems started.

Eric Clapton, who now suffers tinnitus—and most likely also hearing loss, which is often masked by tinnitus—has said “I probably had two 100-watt stacks at the height of things and I would turn one on for guitar solos. It was just mad.” Ginger Baker, a band member, said of that period, “The last year with Cream was just agony. It’s damaged my hearing permanently.” (Below: Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker. Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy1986.)

CREAM UK group in 1968 from left Eric Clapton Jack Bruce Ginger Baker

Or maybe you were in the audience when The Who played the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. Drummer Keith Moon blew up his drum set on stage, which was followed by the usual smashing of instruments. The explosion left Pete Townshend completely deaf in one ear.

Bill Clinton, although not best known for his musical talent, attributes his hearing loss in part to his longtime passion for the saxophone. He wears two hearing aids. Will.I.Am says the only relief from his crippling tinnitus after years with the Black Eyed Peas is the masking provided by the same music that caused the condition: “I don’t know what silence sounds like anymore. Music is the only thing which eases my pain.”

Maybe you were at the concert that holds the Guinness World Record for loudest ever. That was the American cult metal band Manowar, back in 1984. Guinness dropped the category after the event, not wanting to promote hearing loss. Manowar is still touring, and claims to have broken its own record several times. (Photo, below left: Manowar, Alexandre Guzanshe/FotoArena/Getty Images. 2010.)

Ozzy Osbourne, who holds the Guinness record for longest crowd scream – 70 seconds at 105 dB) is notable for not developing hearing loss: scientists are studying his genes to see why neither music nor drugs seem to have affected his hearing.

Manowar, American rock band. 2010

Phil Collins, the former front man for Genesis, damaged his hearing so severely during the band’s heyday in the ‘70’s and’80’s that he has become an advocate for those with hearing loss. So has Kathy Peck, of the all female punk band The Contractions. Peck lost her hearing and developed tinnitus after the band opened for Duran Duran at the Oakland Coliseum. In 1988, she and others started a grassroots organization called H.E.A.R. (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers), which advocates for hearing protection for musicians and fans.

Let’s hope the musicians and fans at last week’s Tinnitus series in New York were paying attention. The Times review described “sounds that punch right into your hearing.” Will we never learn?

First published on AARP Health, Feb 11, 2015.




Big Victory for People With Disabilities.

Remember the ABLE act?  I wrote about it in December: Helping People With Disabilities Help Themselves. 

It’s being signed tomorrow. Congratulations to all!

Here’s a release from the White House.


Vice President Biden to Host ABLE Act Event with Members of Congress

Washington, DC – On Tuesday, February 10th, Vice President Biden will host an event at the White House with Members of Congress to highlight the benefits and achievements of the ABLE Act. The Act creates a new savings account for families with people with disabilities. These tax-preferred accounts allow families to save for future disability-related expenses without losing Medicaid and Social Security benefits.

WHAT:                     Vice President Biden to host ABLE Act event

WHO:                        Vice President Joe Biden

Senator Bob Casey

Senator Richard Burr

Congressman Ander Crenshaw

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers

Congressman Chris Van Hollen

Congressman Pete Sessions

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton

WHEN:                      Tuesday, February 10th

1:00 PM ET

“Sounds that Punch Right Into Your Hearing”

Are we out of our minds? Just when you think awareness of the dangers of noise might be beginning to catch on, you get a New York Times review of a pop concert headlined “Finding Balance in Braying, Shattering, Crackling Electronics.” (Yes, The New York Times.)

In case you think that’s a rhetorical flourish, the critic Ben Ratliff gets specific in his review of the concert series, called Tinnitus, which concentrates on “composers of extreme sound” and “has some kind of relationship with volume and aggression.”

One group in the series, Container,  emphasized “sampled drum sounds that punch right into your hearing and tons of feedback.”

Another, Vessel, “used bullying low-end blots, wild arcs of pitch-shifting and intricately flickering background layers, barely audible under the braying or shattering top lines.”

Are we completely oblivious of our hearing? I sure hope Container, Vessel, the audience and Ben Ratliff were all wearing noise-cancelling earplugs.

A Cure For Hearing Loss?

All you boomers who listened to too much rock ’n’ roll may eventually get back your hearing by popping a pill.

Researchers are closing in on a way to reverse sensorineural loss, the most common cause of hearing loss. Just as important, pharmaceutical companies are putting big money into the effort. Garnering the most publicity so far is a clinical trial of an injectable drug backed by the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis.

Given that 48 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss — including two-thirds of those who are 70 or older — a drug to reverse or prevent it would have a significant impact.

Novartis’ drug, developed by the Maryland biotech firm GenVec, is injected into the inner ear (under anesthesia). The first patient in the trial, a Denver man who had been hard of hearing since he had meningitis as a toddler, underwent the surgical treatment in October. After the two-month period when the drug would be expected to take effect, he reported no significant change. But, he told the New York Times, “I have incidents where I think I’m hearing a new sound or hearing sound differently than I did before.” The Times article also mentioned other drug-company efforts to regenerate and/or prevent hearing loss, some involving an injection; others, a pill.

Adding to the research effort is the Hearing Health Foundation’s Hearing Restoration Project (HRP), a consortium of 15 top academic researchers, most of whom have spent a lifetime working on these issues. These scientists have agreed to work collaboratively, sharing research findings. The group’s approach includes large-scale genomics experiments, testing the genomes of species that can spontaneously regenerate hair cells (birds and fish) against those that don’t (mammals).

These comparative tests may help scientists understand the mechanism by which some species can reverse hair cell loss, and allow the researchers to exploit this in mammals — including humans. It’s a longer process than some that have produced early results, but experts think it’s more likely to end up with a workable, effective treatment. Peter G. Barr-Gillespie of the Oregon Hearing Research Center and head of the HRP project, said in an email that it will probably be at least another five to 10 years before the research is solid enough to support a clinical trial. But that’s still soon enough to help a lot of us in the boomer generation

When I started reading and writing about hearing loss, just five years ago, no large-scale efforts to reverse hearing loss existed. Today the field is full of competing (and collaborative, in the case of the HRP) efforts to come up with a drug — and a drug delivery system — that could help millions of people. Eventually noise- and drug-related damage and age-related hearing loss could be a thing of the past.

In the meantime, protect your hearing. At least for now, you can’t get it back once it’s gone.

Photo: DNY59/istock

This post was first published on AARP Health, Feb 4, 2015.