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Our Deaf Ears

For me it was a summer night in the 1960s, at the Aragon Ballroom on Lawrence Avenue in Chicago, the club during those years temporarily renamed The Cheetah. Seemed like a cool name to me, with my shoulder-length hair, bellbottoms, and paisley everything else. The band for the evening was Blue Cheer, billing itself as the loudest band in rock and roll. I was in the first row.

You could actually feel a warm breeze created by the vibrations from the wall of speakers onstage.

Spilling out onto the street after one terrific show, I heard a high-pitched whistling. “Anybody hear that whistling? Driving me nuts.” No one else did. That night, it kept me awake. And it’s been with me, a fellow traveler in my head 24/7, since that night so long ago, although for quite a while my brain suppressed it. (Generally, I hear it again when a patient comes into the office worrying about the whistling she’s been hearing in her own ears—talk about the power of suggestion.)

I was a resident at Northwestern then, and scheduled an appointment with the Ear-Nose-Throat Department.

“You’ve lost your upper range of hearing, probably a combination of genetic susceptibility and exposure to loud noise.” Since I didn’t consider Blue Cheer “noise” in the same way the elevated train (“The L,” if you’re from Chicago) is noise, I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant.

Parenthetically, this is similar to the way teenagers answered questions for a recently published report on the dramatic rise of hearing loss among them over the past decade, mainly attributable to near-constant in-the-ear amplification from their iPods. “Noise? What noise? Hey, that’s my music, man. That’s not noise!”

Here’s what happens when noise destroys your hearing at a certain pitch: Your brain steps in and tries to replace that very pitch for you. The name for chronic ear noise, most commonly a high-pitched whistle, is tinnitus. And although there are medical conditions that can lead to tinnitus (the most famous being aspirin overdose), hearing loss leads the pack.

Bette Davis once remarked “Old age is not for sissies,” and indeed one of life’s many annoyances on the path to the grave is hearing loss. But with this new study about teenagers, we can expect hearing loss to start a lot earlier in life. There are definite concerns among educators over how this collective loss among young people will affect learning skills. Chronic hearing loss has already been linked to depression and social isolation.

With high-frequency loss (speaking as a sufferer myself), you have trouble distinguishing S from F, the sibilant consonants. In crowded restaurants, you have difficulty tracking cross-talk conversations, called the “cocktail party effect.” You also turn up your TV too loud for your mate.

Hearing experts tell us we’re astonishingly vain when it comes to using amplification– their euphemism for hearing aids—with most of us preferring to walk around deaf as posts rather than be seen with a chunk of plastic sticking out of our ears. Generally, these plastic globs were your grandfather’s hearing aids, the newer models tucked invisibly behind your ear and hidden by hair. It’s ironic that we’ll spend a fortune on designer eyeglasses, which undeniably broadcast to the world that we’re blind as bats, but prefer to shout “Whatja say?” for decades rather than get hearing aids.

Newer hearing aids are computer-adjusted to increase only the pitch you can’t hear, so every sound around you doesn’t come blasting into your brain. What happens when they’re inserted is nothing short of amazing, like having the blurred world suddenly come into focus when you first put on glasses. If you have the common high-frequency hearing loss, you can differentiate the S and Fs again, other consonants like K and T are crisp, you don’t miss dialogue during movies and plays. And for what it’s worth, you also hear birds tweet and the 88th key of a piano, and you remember why kids call going to the bathroom “tinkling.”

For many people, tinnitus vanishes when high-pitch loss is corrected.

This health tip is partly to alert you to a newly launched website, Hearing-aid.com , where you can learn more about hearing loss and take on online hearing test. If you find you’re in worse shape than you thought, for more than 30 years I’ve referred patients to Hearinghealthcenter.com, with offices all around Chicago, and have received only positive reviews.

And if you happen to be hard of hearing because you’re clogged with wax, at the very least you’ll leave their offices with freshly cleaned ears.

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