By Dr. Robert Mario
Hearing begins when the outer ear, the visible portion of the ear that is on the outside of the head, channels sound waves down the auditory canal. This passageway is lined with tiny hairs and small glands. As the sound waves enter the ear, the ear canal serves to increase the loudness of those pitches that make it easier to understand speech. At the same time the ear canal protects another important part of the ear, the eardrum — a flexible, circular membrane that vibrates when touched by sound waves.
The sound vibrations continue their journey into the middle ear, which lies at the end of the auditory canal. This area contains three tiny bones called the ossicles, also known as the hammer, anvil and stirrup. These bones form the bridge from the eardrum into the inner ear. When sound waves hit the ear drum, it vibrates and, in turn, moves the hammer. The hammer moves the anvil, which moves the stirrup, which moves the vibrations into the inner ear. They increase and amplify the sound vibrations even more, before safely transmitting them on to the inner ear via the oval window.
The inner ear consists of the cochlea, which resembles the circular shell of a snail, and houses a system of tubes, which are filled with a watery fluid. As the sound waves pass through the oval window, the fluid begins to move, setting tiny hair cells in motion. In turn, these hairs transform the vibrations into electrical impulses that travel along the auditory nerve to the brain itself.
If you are occasionally questioning your ability to hear the way you used to, the hearing quiz below may help give you direction on what to do next. Answer the questions with either a yes, no or sometimes:
Hearing Health Quiz
1. Do you have difficulty hearing in noisy restaurants?
2. Do people sound like they are mumbling?
3. Do you have difficulty understanding speech on the telephone?
4. Can you understand men better than women or children?
5. Do you seem to hear better out of one ear better than the other?
6. Do you have difficulty hearing someone who is speaking in a whisper?
7. Do you find yourself turning up the volume on the TV?
8. Do your family members make comments about your ability to hear?
9. Do you frequently ask people to repeat themselves?
10. Have you been or are you frequently exposed to loud noises?
If you answered yes or sometimes to any of these questions, you may be suffering from hearing loss and should probably make an appointment to have your hearing checked by a professional hearing specialist.
Dr. Robert Mario, PhD, BC-HIS, is the director of Mario Hearing and Tinnitus Clinics, with locations in West Roxbury, Cambridge and Melrose. He can be reached at 781-979-0800 or visit their website, www.mariohearingclinics.com. Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com.