I knew the game was up a couple of years ago when I started working at a small, boutique PR agency. It was bad enough on the first day when I walked in and a sea of young faces turned towards me wondering whose mother had arrived to hand them their packed lunch. Or that’s certainly how I felt as I sat down at my desk, flushing with embarrassment at being the only ‘oldie’ in the office.
But worse was to follow when the two girls sitting behind me had to poke me in the back every time they wanted my attention, because I’d failed to hear them calling my name. Days went past and I must have said ‘Pardon?’ a hundred times before I admitted defeat. I’d have to start wearing my hearing aid.
I was in my early fifties and for well over a decade I had been in complete denial about my gradual hearing loss. I first noticed I had an issue in my thirties, when I started to get tinnitus. The background noise in my ear, which sounded like a cross between crashing waves and the hum of a small industrial unit, became my constant companion. But after a particularly unpleasant trip to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) hospital in London, where a metal tube was put down my throat, I decided I’d live with the tinnitus and most definitely didn’t have a hearing problem.
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By the time I’d reached my forties, though, I was really starting to struggle. When out walking with a friend, every time she went ahead of me on a narrow path, I couldn’t hear a word she was saying. My teenage son often had to shout out to me that the door bell had rung (God forbid he’d answer it himself). And trying to keep up with conversations at dinner parties had become near impossible.
Time to act. After a series of appointments at my local ENT clinic, I was diagnosed with bilateral otosclerosis, a fairly rare condition where bone forms around the stapes, one of three small bones (the ossicles) in the middle ear, reducing their movement and stopping sound waves passing into the inner ear.
Otosclerosis usually develops in people in their late twenties or thirties, although it may take years before hearing loss is obvious. Other symptoms include dizziness, balance problems and tinnitus – all of which I have experienced intermittently.
The condition tends to run in families. Certainly, my father was very deaf, and his father as well. I’d put down my father’s problems to being blown up in a Jeep in the war, but perhaps this was the reason. My brother also wears a hearing aid.
And twice as many women as men are diagnosed with otosclerosis, with the condition often getting worse during pregnancy, possibly due to changing hormone levels in the body. I had my son when I was 40, and my hearing deteriorated soon after. Otoscleroris can also worsen during the menopause. My consultant told me that patients can end up with complete hearing loss and suggested that I might benefit from a stapedectomy, an operation with a good success rate that replaces the stapes with an artificial bone made of plastic or metal.
But I became fixated on the potential complications: your hearing deteriorating further, a perforated eardrum or – worse, I thought – weakness of the muscles in your face.
So, I plumped for a single hearing aid instead. However, I am ashamed to admit that years went by and I didn’t wear it. I tried a few times, but could never quite get to grips with it and wasn’t convinced it helped. I didn’t give it a chance. I was too vain to wear it. I was in my forties; still in my prime, surely? Glasses were fine, but a hearing aid?
But asking people to repeat themselves at that PR agency all became too much. So I wore the aid into the office. By this time, however, my hearing had got worse and when I went back to hospital I was told I needed aids in both ears.
I didn’t mind, though. My attitude had changed: I felt I’d been offered a lifeline. I now brazenly put my aids on in front of colleagues. They don’t even notice – and I barely know they are there.
Far better to connect with the rest of the world than try to muddle along unaided. There’s only so many times you can say ‘Pardon?’ before people stop bothering to engage, and who wants to miss out on all that office gossip?
How hearing loss is linked to brain decline
My reluctance to wear a hearing aid is far from unusual. ‘Research shows that people hold off for ten years before they do anything about their hearing,’ says Gemma Twitchen, senior audiology specialist at Action on Hearing Loss. ‘There’s a huge stigma around hearing aids and people are very reluctant to wear them – even embarrassed.
‘Historically, they’ve never been the most attractive things – everyone has images of big banana things and they were always whistling – but they’re more subtle now. You can even get them to match your hair colour.’
Of the 11 million people with hearing loss in the UK, 70% are over the age of 70. And, as several studies have suggested that hearing loss is linked with an increased risk of dementia, getting a hearing aid earlier, rather than later, may have added benefits.
Last year, US expert Frank Lin announced that he was about to embark on the first clinical trial to study whether hearing aids could prevent or mitigate brain decline.The vast majority of dementias in later life are multifactorial, he said. But the role of hearing loss has not been properly studied.
Research led by Lin in 2013 suggested that hearing loss is linked to a 30-40% greater risk of cognitive decline than that faced by people without hearing loss.
The study showed that people with hearing loss often strain to listen during conversation and everyday life, overtaxing their brain and weakening their working memory.
‘Get your hearing assessed as soon as possible,’ says Gemma. ‘It’s much harder to adjust to hearing aids as you age. The brain adapts to your hearing loss and takes time to readjust. An aid will keep you in communication with others and help you stay socially active.
‘If you notice you are asking people to repeat things, turning up the TV or think people are mumbling, I would advise taking action now.’