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Hear Life’s Story™

It's Better Hearing and Speech Month!

The glorious month of May has finally arrived. For those of us on the East Coast, this lovely time of year means a warming sun, the return of the birds that now chirp away in the trees, and lilacs, daffodils and forsythia in full bloom.

It’s also the month we focus on hearing and speech. Founded by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) in 1927, Better Hearing and Speech Month aims to raise awareness of the disorders related to hearing, voice, speech and language and to honor those who help people overcome these maladies. 

As a hearing aid wearer, I consider my audiologist to be among the most valued members of my healthcare team. If I need him, I simply pick up the phone and make an appointment. But there was a time when getting help for hearing loss wasn’t so easy. In fact, audiology is one of the younger healthcare fields in America. Let’s look at its history. 

The science of treating hearing loss, or trying to anyway, has been around for centuries. There are writings from a famous medical scroll in 1550 BC that, among various other medical topics, discuss “treatments” for hearing loss. Historians believe that this document is based on even older writings, but they can only guess. Sometime between the 5th and 4th centuries BC, Hippocrates—the famous Greek doctor whose legacy on medicine is still apparent in the Hippocratic Oath – made his mark on the study of hearing loss. He was the first in written history to use clinical research to try to find a cause for hearing loss, which he thought was related to the direction of winds, the weather, and tinnitus. He also believed that hearing loss could be related to skull trauma, which we know today can be true.

Somewhere around 50-40 BC Aulus Cornelius Celsus was the first to differentiate between various hearing disorders. Some of Celsus’s treatments are still in use today in their most basic form, including those dealing with foreign bodies in the ear, ulcers and ear wax blocking the ear canal. Then in the 1st century AD Roman physician Arhigenes used loud sound to stimulate the auditory system, believing (incorrectly) that this could stimulate hearing in those with hearing loss.

In the 4th century AD, physician Alexander of Tralles used herbs to treat hearing loss, as well as the auditory stimulation method by blowing a trumpet directly into the ear canal. (Ouch!) Other interesting rehabilitation methods were used during the Middle Ages by well-meaning ear doctors, including speaking softly and using a small silver or gold tube to suction the eardrum.

In our own country the roots of clinical audiology can be traced to the early 20th century when ‘psychoacoustics’ appeared as a branch of experimental psychology. Professionals in this field studied how humans interpret and react to sound. Audiology itself didn’t emerge as a profession, however, until the 1940s, when thousands of young servicemen and women returned from World War II with noise-induced hearing loss. The government responded by setting up hearing rehab programs at US military hospitals across the country, where hearing aids were fitted, and aural rehabilitation procedures were implemented. Training programs at universities followed, first in the Midwest and eventually throughout the nation.

During the 1950s-60s audiology programs could be found in speech and hearing centers in local communities, which were mainly geared to aural rehabilitation. Then in the 1970s audiologists began conducting hearing assessments in ENT clinics in medical settings. That’s when subspecialties began to come into being. For the first time there was pediatric audiology, educational audiology, industrial audiology, cochlear implants, and assessment of balance function.

Things have come along way since the first hearing aids, which were quite large, had low fidelity and high battery use. They have improved steadily over the years with advances in solid-state electronics that make them fully digital instruments that are barely visible. And for patients who can’t be helped with hearing aids, there are now cochlear implants that stimulate the auditory nerve.

Advances have also occurred in the technology used to assess hearing. In addition to behavioral tests of hearing, audiologists now have a battery of physiologic measures to assess auditory function at all levels. These technologies have made it possible to screen for hearing loss in the newborn nursery, to diagnose hearing loss in early infancy, and fit hearing aids within weeks of birth.

It important to realize that from its very start, audiology has not only focused on the measurement of hearing, but also the impact of hearing loss on communication and social function. Research has shown that untreated hearing loss often contributes to social isolation and depression and an increased risk for dementia, falling, and chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. The list of the adverse effects of untreated hearing loss goes on and on.

So, along with the spring cleanup this year, why not call an audiologist if you suspect you or someone you love has hearing loss. I can guarantee the audiologist won’t use herbs as a cure or blow a trumpet in your ear. What he or she will do is give you a better quality of life. What a fantastic way to experience the lovely month of May.