In The Field

AAAS: The battery in your ear

Hearing loss in the elderly might not be what you think: it isn’t just the loss of hair cells in the ear, as it is with young kids at rock concerts, or even as many clinicians might tell you when your hearing starts to go. It’s a battery problem. The tissue in the ear that ‘powers up’ the amplifiers of hair cells in the outer ear starts to degrade with age. Oxidants pile up and clog the system. The battery dies. And there goes hearing.

This mechanism was published some four years ago, though it still comes as a surprise to many who hear it today – including doctors. Unfortunately scientists’ understanding of the situation hasn’t yet resulted in any breakthrough treatments. The cells that make up this ‘battery’ can regenerate, so it’s possible that stem cell treatment might be able, one day, to fix the problem. Stem cells would probably also be needed to re-grow hair cells in the ear (which do also die away with age, and don’t grow back). But we’re a long way from clinical trials on any of this. We’ll just have to wait for updates.

In the meantime, a word of advice from the experts on hearing at the conference: don’t listen to your ipod on more than half the volume setting if you listen to it all day (or no more than 80% max volume if you’re just listening for 20 minutes or so). More than that and you may not get to experience age-related hearing loss; your ears may go long before then.


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