With his signature floppy jet- black hair, lustrous eyes and expressive Gallic gestures, the celebrity chef, restaurateur and TV personality Jean-Christophe Novelli looks years younger than 53. So it’s easy to understand why, for eight years, he refused to admit – even to himself – that he might be suffering from age-related hearing loss (ARHL).
ARHL, or presbycusis, is the slow loss of hearing we all experience with age. Genes, exposure to loud noise, repeated middle-ear infections, diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol and smoking all increase the risk. But, with the possible exception of his iPod habit, none of these applies to Novelli.
Between rock and a hard of hearing place
Hard rock band AC/DC is an enduring favourite and, he explains, ‘I do remember, on a plane to Dubai to cook for a private function, people giving me funny looks because I had my iPod turned up so loud.’
The first time he noticed his hearing loss had become a major problem was when he met the Princess Royal some six years ago. ‘I couldn’t make out a word she was saying. She kept asking questions and instead of responding I was praying for her to stop and move on to the next person.’
There were other clues. Everyone he met seemed to be mumbling unless they were standing close. ‘I was always asking people to repeat themselves. I also found it difficult to join in group conversations.
‘I would miss whole chunks of what was being said at dinner parties but I was too embarrassed to admit it. It makes you a bit slow on the uptake, so you feel – and look – stupid.’
Turn up the volume
At home with his fiancée, Michelle Kennedy, and their two boys, Jean (5) and Jacques (18 months), Novelli would crank up the volume on the TV, another classic sign of hearing loss. He was also being plagued by tinnitus. It was at work, though, that Novelli’s dwindling hearing was most problematic.
Kitchens are notoriously noisy, full of clanking pots and pans and shouted orders. ‘As a chef you use all your senses and it was becoming increasingly clear that I was losing one of mine.’ Even so, at first he blamed his difficulties on background noise. When a friend suggested he might need a hearing aid, he refused to countenance it. ‘I hated the idea – I thought they were big ugly things. And anyway I was too young, wasn’t I?’
Eventually, in 2013, he agreed to go for a hearing test, which revealed severe ARHL in his right ear. ‘It was a shock and at first I kept the hearing aid [a discreet digital number that sits in his ear and is virtually invisible] in its box. When I did finally use it, it was a revelation.
'One of the first things I noticed was that I had more energy – straining to hear all the time makes you tired. I was also on the ball again with conversation and jokes.’
People often mention being able to hear birdsong as one of the first things they notice on wearing a hearing aid. But as Novelli quips, ‘Most birds are dead by the time I see them’. Instead it’s the sizzling of pan-fried scallops, the gurgle of olive oil and the glub, glub of wine being poured that he can hear again.
Now he is fronting a Specsavers campaign stressing that taking care of hearing should be as much part of regular healthcare as looking after your sight. ‘I hope my story will show that hearing loss is not something to be embarrassed about,’ he says. ‘I’ve noticed a big difference in the quality of my life since wearing my hearing aid. I just wish I’d got help sooner.’
AGE-RELATED HEARING LOSS: THE FACTS
Although one in ten adults could benefit from wearing a hearing aid, according to Action on Hearing Loss,
only one in 30 does.It typically takes people who suspect a hearing problem ten to 15 years before they go for a test. Your GP will be able to arrange this. There’s no cure for ARHL, but hearing aids, telephone amplifiers and other assistive listening devices can help.Avoiding noise exposure and using hearing protection in noisy environments can also help to prevent hearing loss from getting worse.
FIND OUT MORE
To learn more about Specsavers’ free hearing tests and its campaign to put hearing loss ‘on the menu’, visit specsavers.co.uk/hearing. For more information about ARHL, visit actiononhearingloss.org.uk or call 0808 808 0123.
You can also take its telephone Hearing Check on 0844 800 3838 (call charges apply).