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Hearing Health News

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the greatest figures in Western music. He was born in 1770, died in 1827 at the age of 56, and suffered a range of ailments, including hearing loss.

He wrote at the age of 30, “My hearing has been growing steadily worse. I do not hear the high notes of the instruments. I hardly hear people who speak softly. And yet if anyone shouts, I can’t bear it.”

What caused Beethoven’s hearing loss?

Beethoven had progressive hearing loss, tinnitus, greater trouble hearing high-pitched sounds, and poor speech understanding. Many specialists have offered theories about the cause of his hearing loss, such as syphilis, otosclerosis, and labyrinthitis.

The most widely accepted cause? Lead poison. Beethoven was exposed to high levels of lead because of a wine goblet he used. After his death, analysis of his hair strands showed abnormally high levels of lead. And we now know there is a relationship between lead exposure and hearing loss.

However, popular as this theory is, lead exposure has been associated with smaller changes in hearing, not severe ones like those Beethoven seems to have experienced.

Medical treatment in the early 19th century

Beethoven sought treatment for a variety of ailments, including chronic abdominal pain, diarrhea, and respiratory problems. Treatment for his hearing loss included almond oil and cold baths. In his words, “Then came a medical doctor who advised me to take cold baths for my health; a more sensible one advised the usual lukewarm Danube bath. That worked wonders but my deafness remained.”

Most of the descriptions of Beethoven’s hearing described him as becoming “totally deaf.” However, the “deafness” of the 19th century is not the deafness of today. There were few options for treating hearing loss in Beethoven’s day. He used ear trumpets for many years, but these are only useful in cases of mild or moderate hearing loss. After a few years they were no longer helpful.

When hearing aids did become the norm, they weren’t very smart. Until recently, hearing aids amplified all sound the same, whether the sound was soft or loud, low-pitched or high-pitched, in front of you or behind you.

Medical treatment in the 21st century: Hearing goes digital

Fortunately, 21st-century digital hearing aids are much smarter. They monitor the sound around you, process it automatically based on a program custom-designed for your hearing loss, and deliver you the sound just the way you need it. For example, someone might hear low-pitched sounds well, but they have significant trouble hearing high-pitched sounds, which are critical for speech understanding (similar to Beethoven). For this person, the hearing instruments are custom programmed so low-pitched sounds are not amplified, but high-pitched sounds are significantly amplified.

Today, hearing aids and cochlear implants successfully treat people with severe hearing loss, including those with no hearing left. Would Beethoven have benefitted from 21st-century hearing aids? Almost definitely, yes. He would have been a challenging patient, but with modern hearing care, it’s likely he would have heard his own music, communicated easily with the people around him, and suffered less depression. If Beethoven could have spent the later part of his life with 21st-century hearing treatment, who knows what music he could have created!

In the 21st century, millions of patients around the world have benefitted from these recent advances in digital technology. Hearing devices can’t restore normal hearing, but we’ve come a long way from the days when hearing devices weren’t very smart. Who knows what advances we’ll see in the future?

Patients with hearing loss who take advantage of the hearing care available today do well in all kinds of listening settings. Our practice has many success stories. Be proactive and take that first step to discuss your hearing difficulties.

Please contact our office today to schedule an appointment. Let us help you achieve better hearing, which leads to better overall wellness and quality of life!