Worldwide, millions of people are excluded from the world of sound. Now, reports MARGUERITE VAN WYK, the science of audiology is going from strength to strength with the development of cutting-edge technology to help those with hearing disabilities.
Imagine waking up and not being able to hear the alarm clock, being clueless about the breaking news on your favourite radio station, unable to make out what your spouse, children and grandchildren are chatting about around the dinner table.
“Hearing is an integral part of communication and connection,” says Lucretia Petersen, a senior lecturer in audiology at the University of Cape Town. “According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 6.1% of the global population lives with a disabling hearing loss and sub-Saharan Africa is one of the regions with the highest prevalence.” Lucretia defines audiology as the “prevention, diagnosis and management of hearing and ear-related balance problems across the lifespan of humans”.
Nearly one-third of people older than 65 have hearing loss that impacts negatively on their ability to communicate and more than one billion people between the ages of 12 and 35 are at risk of hearing loss due to exposure to loud sounds.
“If left unmanaged, hearing loss can play havoc with a person’s quality of life and lead to isolation, educational and vocational disadvantages and even the deterioration of emotional wellbeing,” Lucretia points out. “With the global increase in life expectancy and a greater exposure to noise, disabling hearing loss will affect a staggering 900 million people by 2050 if no action is taken.
“It is estimated that only 17% of individuals who could potentially benefit from hearing aids actually use them. Stigma is a big problem and a complex issue. It is perpetuated by the belief that hearing loss is a sign of ageing and consequently of not being capable of ‘normal’ functioning. Perceptions such as these are often created by the media. And, unlike difficulties with vision, hearing disabilities can result in misunderstanding and missing out on nuances of humour and sarcasm.”
Solutions to help people in need
Leán Taylor is a corporate audiologist at Unitron South Africa, a hearing instrument supplier. She says that one of the greatest recent innovation has been connectivity to mobile devices, which has streamlined telecommunications for hearing-impaired individuals by enabling the direct, hands-free streaming of phone calls and audio to hearing instruments. “The bonus of lithium-ion rechargeable hearing instruments is that it gives patients a complete, practical and accessible hearing solution,” she adds.
Léan also mentions particular hearing instruments that have recently been released on the Discover Next platform. “The platform allows for direct, hands-free streaming of phone calls and audio. The hearing aids are compatible with both Android and iPhone devices and have an easy-to-use application that allows the hearing instrument to be controlled via a mobile device.”
“The motto of Oticon SA is ‘life-changing technology’,” explains Elzanne Smuts, the corporate audiologist at this hearing aid manufacturer, which has its headquarters in Denmark. “We want to create a world where hearing aids fit seamlessly into people’s lifestyle and help them to realise their full potential, while avoiding the health consequences of hearing loss. Hearing health is brain health. Our brain is the most important tool in our body and vital for physical and mental health.”
When there is hearing loss, she continues, the brain is ‘held hostage’. “The ability to focus on what we need to hear, without being disturbed by noise, is one of the biggest challenges of people with hearing disabilities. Traditional hearing aids are renowned for simply making certain sounds louder while attempting to eliminate others. This could leave the brain cluttered with distractions and lead to confusion, so that communication becomes tedious.”
Elzanne says Oticon SA’s hearing aids empower the brain, opening it up to a world of sound and making it easier to communicate, even when several people are speaking at the same time and there is a lot of background noise, like at parties. “They enable people with hearing loss to connect on a whole new level. “If your brain doesn’t get the correct sound information via your ears, it has to work extra hard and this additional effort could age it more quickly, change the way it works and even lead to more falling-related injuries, fatigue and stress.”
Oticon manufactures hearing aids for both adults and children and develops some of the most innovative aids on the market. Some of the names that feature are Play (for children), Ruby (for adults), launched in 2020, and More (also for adults), to be launched in 2021.
“South Africa has highly qualified hearing care professionals to support people who live with hearing loss,” says Marica Groenewald, a sales representative and audiologist at the hearing aid company Signia. “The world of sound and audiology is developing rapidly and these developments are actively changing technological care. Hearing aids have gone from functional, large beige amplifiers to being innovative and stylish. We launched the trendy Signia Styletto X and tiny Signia Silk X in June 2020.”
Marica is excited about the Signia Xperience platform, a smart chip and operating system launched in 2019 that drives the sound processing of the new hearing aids. “Signia Xperience is the world’s first hearing aid equipped with acoustic motion sensors for a more natural sound while you are on the go,” she explains. “You could be jogging, chatting to friends at a noisy party or simply reclining at home.” Motion is involved in as much as 90% of our activities. Your surroundings change constantly and as you move, your acoustic environment changes, too. Your perception of sound could therefore change within seconds as you move from a quiet to a busy space. But with Signia Xperience, a different sound flow awaits you, she promises.
Lucretia suggests using education to address the stigma surrounding hearing loss. “It is also important to talk about your problem, so that others know about your difficulties. Seek out peers in self-help groups who can relate to what you’re experiencing.” Normalising regular tests for hearing, like regular eye tests, would increase awareness about hearing loss.
“This might sound a bit like science fiction but the hearing-impaired can look forward to cutting-edge technology designed to meet all their needs,” says Marica.