Imagine being in a room surrounded by people you would like to talk to or you are attending a concert by a musician you have always wanted to see or perform you are spending time outdoors amidst the lulling sounds of nature, then it dawns on you that you cannot enjoy any of it because you have difficulties hearing. You feel isolated and detached. That’s how it felt for Sammy Kang’ethe for many years.
Kang’ethe had hearing difficulties since childhood, although at the time his parents did not know what was wrong with him. “They just noticed that I was sometimes sad or lonely,” he says, adding that with a lot of difficulty, he managed to go through primary and secondary school until he was involved in a bike accident in 2005, which intensified his hearing difficulties.
“A friend suggested that I should see a hearing specialist,” he says.
Despite seeing a couple of doctors, he did not get a clear direction on what was needed to solve his difficulties. His hearing deteriorated and he withdrew further. In March 2012, someone referred him to an ear specialist at SNR Hearing Centre, Parklands and for the first time he learnt that his hearing could be treated with an hearing aid.
“My parents bought me the hearing aid they could afford and my whole world changed. I walked out and could hear birds and the construction sound nearby,” he says.
Dr Seema Shah, an audiologist at the clinic, spent time with him to ensure he familiarised himself with sounds he encountered.
There was a significant improvement in his hearing and in May the same year Kang’ethe resumed his studies, eventually joining Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology where he pursued a degree in Information Technology. This time round his learning experience was better: he was more engaged in class and made more friends. Regaining his hearing and being able to communicate unearthed his creative prowess. Kang’ethe, 36, currently works in a technology company, where he is involved in app development.
Hearing loss is becoming a growing health concern globally. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that five per cent of the world’s population, about 466m people, has disabling hearing loss. Adults who account for 432 million are adversely affected compared to 34 million children.
“The first sign is loss of clarity. People still hear but may miss certain sounds ,hence cannot understand words properly. Speech is vital for survival and if one cannot communicate, they feel isolated, lose self-esteem, get lonely and become less productive. Hearing loss affects every bit of human interaction,’ says Dr Seema.
The loss in hearing becomes more apparent when there is background noise. Over time, hearing loss affects a person’s quality of life. Lower productivity can cause job loss while isolation may lead to depression.
Research shows that hearing loss results in cognitive decline. A study by John Hopkins and National Institute of Aging, US reveals that health consequences related to hearing loss include increased risk of dementia and diminishing physical and mental health.
Age is one of the biggest factors contributing to hearing loss. “Hearing deteriorates as one gets older. At least one in three people over 65 years have disabling hearing loss,” says Seema. Exposure to loud noise and for long periods can damage the ear and diminish the ability to hear. WHO estimates that 1.1 billion young people are at risk of hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices. To counter this, the organisation recommends that young people keep the volume down in their personal audio devices, wear earplugs when visiting noisy places and use headphones that regulate noise appropriately. One can also lose their hearing due to side effects of drugs.
Depending on the cause, hearing loss can be temporary or irreversible. Hearing loss caused due to congestion by colds or due to earwax can be medically treated and restored. “Loss of hearing as a result of noise and age is, however, irreversible and can only be treated through a cochlea implant or hearing aids,” says Dr Seema.
She notes that hearing loss is often stigmatised and associated with low intellectual ability, consequently, many people do not seek treatment and instead suffer in silence. It is, however, important to see an ear specialist to get proper diagnosis and receive the appropriate intervention.
Early screening for hearing loss is important and to promote this, WHO has developed a mobile-based hearWHO app, through which one can check their hearing status. The simple to use app, is compatible with android and iOS devices.