• A bionic solution for elderly isolation?

    Most people will suffer hearing loss in their later years – and it can have a major impact on quality of life.

    Frustration and embarrassment caused by impaired basic communication abilities often leads to the kind of social isolation that significantly raises the risk of dementia.

    Robert Bailey, 77, had put up with gradual hearing loss for 30 years.

    He had worn hearing aids in both ears for most of that time, and struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic when people were required to wear masks and shops installed safety screens.

    “Masks and screens are hopeless from a hearing perspective because it doesn’t allow you to lip read, so you’ve got to do a lot of guessing and you get some things right and some things wrong,” he said. 

    “If you get it wrong you get a weird look, so you know you’ve given the wrong answer.”

    Like many people for whom hearing aids no longer work, the Melbourne resident decided to try the next step up the treatment scale – a bionic ear.

    He was the first person to receive a cochlear implant at Epworth Richmond hospital, with the procedure performed by ear, nose and throat surgeon Mr Guillermo Hurtado.

    “Mr Bailey’s gradual hearing loss has impacted his daily activities and social interactions with family and friends, which was made worse by the use of masks during the pandemic,” Mr Hurtado said.

    “The progressive hearing loss has affected his quality of life significantly, despite the continued adjustment of his hearing aids to the maximum level, which prompted him to consider the option of receiving a bionic ear implant.”

    Part of the device is worn like a hearing aid, while the rest of the technology is inserted under the skin inside the ear.

    Rather than amplify noises like a hearing aid does, a bionic ear creates artificial sound generated by complex microprocessors in the implant, which sends an electronic impulse to the auditory nerve so the brain receives sound signals again.

    It effectively bypasses the damaged, non-functioning part of the inner ear.

    “The cochlear implant surgery is usually performed in under two hours,” Mr Hurtado said.

    “Once switched on, patients will then undergo a rehabilitation program, learning to hear again using the implant. This allows ongoing improvement of speech perception that can sometimes last up to 12 months.”

    One-in-three people over the age of 65 are affected by hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization, including an estimated 120,000 Australians.

    Cochlear, a leading manufacturer of hearing devices, estimates that less than five percent of adults who would benefit from a bionic ear have had one implanted.

    Epworth HealthCare joined the Victorian Cochlear Implant Program in mid-2022, and nine patients had followed Mr Bailey in receiving the treatment at the Richmond hospital by the end of the year.

    “Hearing loss is a significant problem across the globe, affecting 1.5 billion people, and constitutes the third major cause of disability worldwide,” Mr Hurtado said. 

    “Unfortunately, there is a large number of people who struggle with hearing aids, sometimes accepting with resignation the fact of becoming deaf with age. 

    “Progressive hearing difficulties can impact patients profoundly, limiting social interaction, leading to frustration, feeling of embarrassment and social isolation. Treating hearing loss is cost-effective and can also reduce risk of dementia by eight percent.”

    Read more: Ending the sound of silence

    Read more: Australia-first ‘bio-ear’ restores kids’ hearing