The hearing aid was a game changer when it first burst onto the scene as a tool to help those suffering from hearing loss. New advancements in hearing aid technology are helping more and more people around the world every year.
Hearing loss is much more common than most people would probably imagine.
In fact, according to data by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, hearing loss affects around 15 percent of adults in the United States.
Worldwide, around 430 million people live with some form of disabling hearing loss — roughly five percent of the global population. These numbers may double in a few decades.
Continued research into the treatment of hearing loss is so crucial. Hearing aids and cochlear implants remain in front regarding effective tools and treatments, but they aren’t alone.
The Auditory System
In simple terms, hearing refers to the awareness of the presence of sounds.
These sounds (sound waves) begin as vibrations that travel through your ear, your nerves, and your brain.
To understand how hearing loss happens and the treatments that seek to address it, it’s helpful to know how the auditory system works.
The ear itself comprises three basic parts: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear.
The outer ear is the visible part of the ear that we see. Its primary job is gathering sound waves and directing them into our ear canals.
The outer ear has two main parts; the cup-shaped visible part called the pinna and the ear canal.
Next is the middle ear. This air-filled cavity is home to the eardrum. It also houses a group of three small bones known as the ossicles (malleus, incus, and stapes). These bones help send vibration to the inner ear.
The inner ear is composed of a network of interconnected, fluid-filled chambers.
The inner ear receives sound vibrations from the middle ear and sends them as electrical impulses through the auditory nerve to the brain. The inner ear has a snail-shaped organ called the cochlea and numerous hair cells and nerves.
The Process of Hearing
As sound waves hit the eardrum in the middle ear, they cause it to vibrate. These vibrations cause the ossicle bones to move, helping them move the sound to the inner ear.
The vibrations then arrive at the cochlea, filled with tiny hairs. The sound vibrations stimulate these tiny hairs to move.
Sensory hair cells (inner and outer) absorb sound information and change it into electrical signals. Finally, the auditory nerves receive the signals and send them to the brain, allowing you to hear.
How Does Hearing Loss Happen?
Hearing loss is the difficulty or inability to hear sounds like other people would with normal auditory function.
Hearing loss can worsen over time and come with warning signs like tinnitus.
While sudden hearing loss can occur anytime, age remains one of the strongest predictors of hearing loss among adults (ages 20 to 69).
This hearing loss is referred to as age-related hearing loss or presbycusis.
Age-related hearing loss happens when the auditory system degenerates with age, like a loss of hair cells.
This age-related hearing loss would fall under the category of sensorineural hearing loss.
While age is the biggest factor behind sensorineural hearing loss, it can also result from certain diseases like Ménière's disease, tumors, and medication side effects.
Conductive hearing loss is another common form of hearing loss. It is often the result of trauma or obstruction of the ear structures.
5 Effective Treatments for Hearing Loss
Hearing impairment is broad, and the causes of hearing loss vary greatly.
Treatments used to address hearing loss also vary, depending on the cause and the degree of hearing loss.
For example, conductive hearing loss caused by earwax impaction can usually be remediated rather easily with home remedies or a trip to the doctor.
However, severe hearing loss due to aging or long-term noise exposure will require much more intensive treatments like hearing aids to amplify sound.
Let’s look at five of the latest treatments for hearing loss available today.
1. Advanced Hearing Aids
When people think of hearing loss, the first treatment that comes to mind is hearing aids. Hearing aids have been around for decades; advancements make them more effective and efficient each year.
The basic function of a hearing aid is to amplify sound for someone with hearing loss.
However, with technological advances, hearing aids have even more to offer.
Today, many different types of hearing aids boast a lot more features, including:
- Smaller and more discreet designs, like canal-style hearing aids.
- Compatibility with Bluetooth-enabled devices.
- Programming and quality adjustment features.
- Improvements for managing background noise.
- Built-in rechargeable batteries.
2. Assistive Listening Devices (ALD)
Advances in ALD have made managing hearing loss much more effective. ALDs are any device that helps someone with hearing loss communicate more effectively, usually through sound amplification or visual alerts.
ALD technologies can help improve a person’s experience in daily life, like watching TV or talking on the phone, or aiding a child in the classroom.
An example of an ALD technology would be frequency modulation (FM) systems that use wireless amplifiers. These, with a microphone, are used to amplify voices and sounds.
ALDs are effective tools in a classroom environment. A teacher simply wears a microphone, and the speech gets transmitted to the student wearing the receiver.
3. Cochlear Implants
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first cochlear implant in the 1980s.
The FDA regulates the manufacture of cochlear implants to this day. Cochlear implants have come a long way since their inception and have raised the quality of life for many.
In short, cochlear implants are hearing devices implanted into the cochlea that stimulate the auditory nerve through electrodes in the inner ear.
Research and clinical trials are ongoing, but the effectiveness of cochlear implants for those with severe hearing loss is well documented.
4. Auditory Training and Rehabilitation
Hearing aids and cochlear implants are proven and effective tools for treating hearing loss. However, some strategies can enhance and work alongside these tools.
Auditory training and rehabilitation help the brain relearn how to process noise into sounds and speech. This type of training happens with the help of a trained hearing health professional, like an audiologist or speech-language pathologist.
Methods are taught that help a person sharpen their hearing and reduce symptoms like listening fatigue.
5. Stem Cell Research and Gene Therapy
One of the latest research areas for hearing loss treatment is using stem and progenitor cells.
In short, researchers are investigating the potential for using stem cells to operate and function as new hair cells. As stated above, the degeneration of hair cells that causes age-related hearing loss.
Research companies like Frequency Therapeutics are on the front line in regenerative therapy for hearing loss.
Gene therapy is another potential ally in the fight against age-related hearing loss. Gene therapy is the transplantation of normal genes into damaged or defective cells. In this case, gene therapy can repair and regenerate damaged or defective hair cells.
While the clinical studies into gene therapy and stem therapy for hearing loss are ongoing, the possibility that hair cell function or hair cell regeneration could be on the horizon would be a game changer.
Hearing research is a growing field. As technology advances, breakthroughs into new treatments and improvements on old ones are ever-expanding.
New interventions for treating hearing loss are being researched and studied every day.
The first step in treatment for hearing loss involves a trip to see a healthcare professional. An audiologist can perform a hearing test and give you direction on your degree of hearing loss and what treatment options will be most effective for you.
References, Studies and Sources:
Quick Statistics About Hearing | NIDCD
Age-Related Hearing Loss (Presbycusis) | NIH
What is a Cochlear Implant? | FDA
Cochlear implantation outcomes in adults: A scoping review | PMC