Currently it’s estimated that 48 million people are affected by hearing loss in the US alone. The world toll is projected to be closer to 466 million people and the number is expected to rise to around 900 million if attitudes and education around hearing loss doesn’t change. There is currently no way to reverse sensorineural hearing loss, affecting 90% of all cases of hearing loss. However, who knows what the future will hold? Hearing loss has long been recorded in our history and looking back it’s clear we’ve already come a very long way. Let’s look back on the history of recorded hearing loss to reflect on how far treatments and attitudes around hearing loss have progressed.
Earliest Findings on Hearing Loss
When tracking the history of hearing loss, the earliest mentions date back to over 10,000 years ago in skeletal remains found in the Shanidar Caves in Iraqi Kurdistan. While sensorineural hearing loss occurs in the cells of the inner ear which breakdown over time, archeologists discovered exostoses, which are bony growths in ear canal. Exostoses notes a blockage of sound, classified as conductive hearing loss.
Hearing Loss in Ancient Egypt
For nearly 30 centuries—from its unification around 3100 B.C. to its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.—ancient Egypt was a powerful and influential civilization in the Mediterranean world. Among their amazing technological developments included mathematics, geometry, surveying, metallurgy, astronomy, accounting, the ramp, the lever, the plough, mills for grinding grain and even writing and paper. One of the earliest known written mentions of hearing loss was noted in the Ebers Papyrus – a medical journal dating back to 1550 BC! The writing describes a remedy for “Ear That Hears Badly”. This remedy includes a portion of injected oil, red lead, ant eggs, bat wings and goat urine into the ears! Today this remedy may seem alarming and helps us realized the extend of the hearing innovations we’ve collectively accomplished.
Hearing Loss in Ancient Greece
In the early 10th-century famous philosophers, Plato, and Aristotle both spoke of hearing loss, describing it as so: “ability to reason was intrinsically linked with the ability to speak.” These misconceptions around hearing loss are clear today – hearing loss is not connected to intelligence but the ability to receive sounds.
Hearing Loss in Burgundy
Sign language is an amazing way for the deaf and hard of hearing community to communicate clearly without the use of audio communication. Its roots go all the way back to the monks of ancient Burgundy in the 10th century. As a vow of silence was common in these monks, they created as language based on hand signals to communicate with one another. Eventually known as Cluniac sign language, this nonverbal language spread across the monasteries of Europe. Many believe that this was the inspiration for modern sign language utilized by more than 70 million deaf people around the world to learn, work, access services, and be included in their communities.
Early Hearing Aids from Ear Horns to Microprocessors
Today hearing aids are the most common treatment for hearing loss. These tiny electronic devices sit in or near the ear canal and can be programed based on a hearing exam to amplify only the sounds you struggle with. The earliest forms of hearing aids are traced to the 17th century, where ear trumpets using animal horns or sheet iron, were held up the ear to amply sound. Ear trumpets prevailed as the primary form of amplification through the 19th century. In fact, it wasn’t until Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone in 1876 that inventors were able to incorporate this technology into the first amplified electronic hearing aids. In 1889 the monumental introduction of the first hearing aid was provided by inventor Miller Reese Hutchison. Since then, hearing aids continue to develop and improve from 1920 vacuum tube technology to transistor technology of the 1940’s post world war developments.
Digital Devices and Beyond
Throughout the decades, hearing aids continue to evolve. Recently hearing aids are phasing our analog amplification in favor of precise digital hearing aids. By breaking sound waves into micro steps, digital hearing aids offer clear sound at every level and provide the greater programmability to optimize individual programing for users.