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Because of her profound hearing loss, Edna Whitted would pass notes back and forth in church with her granddaughter in order to understand what was being said. Now, the 90-year-old Upper Marlboro, Md., resident can hear every word the minister relays thanks to a recent cochlear implant.
"You don’t have to suffer with severe hearing loss,” says Selena E. Briggs, MD, an otologist/neurotologist and lateral skull base surgeon in the Department of Otolaryngology at MedStar Washington Hospital Center who treated Whitted. “Cochlear implants are the next step after hearing aids no longer help.”
That was indeed the case for Whitted, who for nearly five years could not hear due to a 92 and 88 percent hearing loss in her left and right ears, respectively.
“Before she could never be part of the conversation,” says Amelia Stewart, Whitted’s granddaughter. “She would get really upset because she couldn’t be part of it.”
A Safe, Simple Solution to Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss–or presbycusis–is a natural part of aging, explains Dr. Briggs. Hearing aids are a natural first step in assisting with progressive hearing loss, however, should those no longer offer any improvement, implants are an option.
A cochlear implant is a small, surgically implanted electronic device that provides sound to a person who is deaf or severely hard of hearing. Unlike hearing aids, which amplify sounds, cochlear implants provide signals to the brain by stimulating the auditory nerve. The brain then recognizes these signals as sounds.
"It’s a safe and easy procedure,” says Dr. Briggs. “People love having them and it’s simply life-changing for them.”
Dr. Briggs notes there is no age limit to having a cochlear implant and the implants are designed to last a lifetime. They are also covered by insurance and Medicare. The implants have two parts, an external piece that sits behind the ear and an internal part that is placed under the skin and secured to the skull. The procedure takes 1-2 hours and can be done on an outpatient basis.
Life Changing Effects of Cochlear Implants
In addition to improving hearing, cochlear implants also relieve tinnitus, or the perception of noise or ringing in the ears, in 75 percent of patients.
"People don’t realize the things they have been missing,” says Dr. Briggs. “Cochlear implants can help older adults stay active and engaged. I have never had a single patient say they regretted getting one.”
That holds true for Whitted, who received her left-sided implant two months shy of a surprise 90th birthday party. “This has improved my grandmother’s quality of life so much,” says Stewart. “You can tell how happy she really is, and at her birthday party, we sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ and she heard every word, loud and clear.”