In an increasingly noisy world, hearing loss is a major health crisis for seniors—a group that constitutes Canada’s fastest growing population.
“Hearing loss with aging is permanent and can’t be corrected by surgery or other methods,” says Dr. Donald Jamieson, Director of the National Centre for Audiology (NCA) and a professor of audiology at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, which is home to the world-renowned research centre.
To deal with the health crisis, researchers at the NCA are hard at work dealing with the technology and societal issues that accompany presbycusis, or age-associated hearing loss. Despite the harsh reality that accompanies most hearing loss conditions, significant advances are already occurring that promise to improve the lives of many. The advances are coming as a result of hearing aids that better mimic the human ear. They’re also the result of identifying environmental concerns and coping mechanisms to help seniors hear what they need to hear in a world increasingly awash in noise.
One of the NCA’s leading researchers into hearing loss and aging is associate professor Dr. Margaret Cheesman. She has determined that hearing loss, particularly for high-pitched sounds, is more common than previously thought—experienced by 90 percent of the elderly. When people lose their ability to hear high pitches, Cheesman says speech sounds more muffled. There are no quick remedies. Turning up the volume on a television, for instance, just makes the muffled noise louder.
Cheesman says there are a few other elements that compound the problem. The elderly tend to be passive when it comes to complaints, are less articulate when discussing technology, and are often ignored by health care workers in busy long-term care settings. There are also the social factors. “The social impact of hearing loss is highly underrated,” she says. “Some people will react by simply not going into noisy environments or not going to events.” Cheesman says there are a number of ways that hearing impaired seniors and the people around them can create a better hearing environment.
Dr. Vijay Parsa leads a team of researchers closing the gap between current testing techniques and the real-world problems that users experience. The team works in an anechoic chamber built as part of the NCA facilities funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation. “The tests (today) are rudimentary checks to see if a hearing aid is working,” says Parsa. “We are trying to come up with advanced tests to show the audiologist how the hearing aid is really working—something that makes sense from the hearing impaired person’s perspective.
The team is creating a series of databases using natural speech signals and corrupting them with other noises such as crowds, echoes, steady noises, industrial noise, and street traffic noise. The databases are processed through different noise-reduction algorithms and hearing impaired people are asked to listen to the signals to see how they improve or worsen. “It is a sample of what they would encounter in real life,” says Parsa. “It’s the most advanced work of its kind in the world.” Some initial papers have been published on the subject and Parsa is confident the work will lead to new national, international, and industry testing standards.
Until the University of Western Ontario decided to open an audiology research facility in 1988, there was no concerted effort in Canada to study hearing loss and related illnesses.
For the next decade, the National Centre for Audiology operated from several locations in London, Ontario. In 1998, a $1.2 million infrastructure grant from the CFI paved the way for a world-class NCA facility. The NCA currently has eight full-time researchers and hopes to increase the number to a dozen in the next couple of years. “The CFI has contributed a great deal in helping us to gain attention internationally, and to be able to call ourselves a national centre,” says Dr. Richard Seewald, a founding researcher at the NCA. “We couldn’t do that before the CFI.”
Seewald—who led the development of the highly-acclaimed Desired Sensation Level (DSL) hearing aid software, and last year was awarded a Canada Research Chair in Childhood Hearing—says the award and the CFI grant “put Canada on the map” for leading audiology work.
NCA Director Dr. Donald Jamieson says the NCA staff is responsible for the graduate program, which produces the majority of this country’s audiologists—approximately 15 a year.
The $1.2 million grant to the University of Western Ontario for the National Centre for Audiology was a major turning point. It has helped both the university and Canada become leading research centres for audiology.
Dr. Vijay Parsa says his work would simply not be taking place without the CFI infrastructure investment. “That was our selling point. We have this great big facility and now we need to find people to run it and do these projects.”
The University of Western Ontario and the NCA have used the leverage potential that comes with CFI support to obtain significant private-sector funding in recent years. Most recently, the Oticon Foundation (a majority shareholder of Danish hearing aid manufacturer Oticon) established the $700,000 five-year Oticon Research Chair to fund Parsa’s work and a team of two graduate students and a research fellow.
With combined funding from the CFI, the Ontario Innovation Trust, and corporate donations, more than $4 million has been raised to help the NCA equip laboratories and conduct research. Among the contributors for a number of projects and areas of specialization:
Siemens Hearing Instruments — Child amplification laboratory, a hearing research clinic, an education outreach program, and a seminar room.
Starkey Canada — Amplification systems teaching laboratory.
Beltone Electronics — Additional funding for the anechoic chamber.
Phonak Hearing Systems (Switzerland) — Research audiologist fellowship and a symposium series in paediatric audiology.
dspfactory — Laboratory for digital signal processing.
Argosy Hearing Solutions (U.S.) — Support for a signal processing research associate.
Widex Canada — Aural rehabilitation laboratory.
For more information on the National Centre for Audiology, its programs and staff:
Various organizations exist to help Canadians cope with hearing loss:
Canadian Hearing Society
To view the Foundation’s online magazine