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Don’t laugh, ‘selective deafness’ is a serious matter

Jeremy Clarkson says he has only just sought out hearing aids, 12 years after his problems begun
Jeremy Clarkson says he has only just sought out hearing aids, 12 years after his problems begun - Amazon Prime / Television Stills

It might infuriate your family this Christmas if you’re seemingly deaf to words like “dishes” and “driving”, while “wine” and “turkey” remain crystal clear – but you can tell them that this problem is no laughing matter.

The ability to hear only certain sounds and syllables while others escape you is a phenomenon well-observed by scientists but one which, as former Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson knows well, can baffle the people who deal with us.

The presenter recently explained his quandary. “If you were to stand at the bottom of my garden and whisper: ‘Would you like a glass of wine?’ I’d be there in a jiffy,” he said. “But if you stood right next to me and asked me to empty the dishwasher, I’d just get a Garfunkelly sound of silence.”

Jeremy Clarkson has recently shared his issues with selective hearing loss
Jeremy Clarkson has recently shared his issues with selective hearing loss - Invision

It might sound like a convenient excuse for getting out of housework, but what seems like your partner’s “selective hearing” could actually be a sign that their ears are in need of some support, says Professor Gill Livingston of University College London.

“Women tend to notice this sort of thing early in our partners, but often it’s not because we’re being ignored when we ask them to do the washing up,” Livingston says. “Our voices are pitched more highly and therefore are first to disappear from the range of what people can hear.” Often it’s not that someone like Clarkson is completely unable to hear you, but that their ears can no longer pick up what is being said with accuracy.

“The same goes for consonants rather than vowels,” she adds. “Consonants are at a higher frequency and so are the first sounds that disappear when our hearing declines” – hence why for Clarkson, a word like “dishes” may well be inaudible.

It’s those missing consonants which indicate that Clarkson is suffering from hearing loss, says Livingston. He’s not simply deploying “selective hearing” in the way we often think of it, where people appear only to hear information that’s important to them. This phrase in fact refers to the brain “tuning out” background noise, an ability that we all have and that doesn’t indicate a hearing problem.

“Short and familiar words can sometimes be easier to hear, however,” Livingston says, “so someone who is struggling to hear might still respond to their name or to something they’re very fond of or are used to hearing” – like “wine”.

As Clarkson writes he has just discovered, however, hearing loss of any kind can as much as double your risk of developing dementia. Livingston has studied the link between deafness and Alzheimer’s disease extensively.

“The most important reason for this link is that our ears provide us with the easiest way to get brain stimulation,” she says. “When you have a conversation you have to anticipate what other people say and respond, which you miss out on if you can’t hear properly.

“If you look at what this does to the temporal lobes of people with hearing problems, they actually shrink over time, which impacts our memory functions,” she says.

Fortunately, this is a problem that can be completely prevented by wearing a hearing aid from the moment that you need one. In one study of more than 400,000 people, published this year, those with hearing loss who didn’t use hearing aids were 42 per cent more likely to develop dementia, while those who used hearing aids consistently were found to be at no greater risk.

A hearing test can determine whether or not you have selective hearing
A hearing test can determine whether or not you have selective hearing - Getty Images

It is for this reason that Clarkson says he is finally wearing hearing aids, after twelve years of struggling with his hearing. “This delay in seeking help is quite typical of what we see in people with hearing loss,” says Rob Ormerod, audiology director at Bayfields Opticians. “On average, people wait ten years before they get hearing aids after their hearing starts to decline.”

“There’s unfortunately still a bit of stigma around wearing hearing aids,” Ormerod says, “and on top of that, many people never go for a hearing test after the ones they get in early childhood, so they don’t know what to do about their ears.”

If you think you might have a problem like Clarkson’s, then you should visit an audiologist, Ormerod says. Opticians such as Specsavers and Boots often offer hearing tests, and your GP can also refer you to an NHS audiologist.

At your appointment, the audiologist will assess your ears for problems like a buildup of wax, tinnitus or vertigo, before performing a “pure tone audiometry test”. This involves playing a series of bleeps at different pitches to work out what you can and cannot hear, at which point you might be recommended hearing aids.

“If your hearing is getting worse, then the sooner you get hearing aids, the sooner you can offset that dementia risk,” Ormerod says. “But it’s never too late. Even if, like Jeremy Clarkson, you’ve put it off for twelve years, it’s still much better for your brain health to see an audiologist as soon as you can.”

Besides, says Professor Livingston, we all walk around with bits of tech in our ears these days – though this could be a problem in itself for younger people, many of whom listen to music at volumes that are unsafe for their eardrums. Regardless, there is no reason why hearing aids should be deemed unfashionable. “Really, they are just another way of staying connected. Having hearing aids should be no more of a vanity issue than wearing glasses – that’s to say, not at all.”

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