The bigger issues that come with preventing hearing loss

Is there cause for optimism when it comes to preventing hearing loss? Certainly the latest research into this suggests that if positive effects experienced by mice could be transferred to humans and maintained for the long term, then hereditary hearing loss could be a thing of the past.

It has always been assumed that hearing loss is always down to old age. The commonly held view is that as people grow older, their muscles and body functions deteriorate with time to the point that muscle function is impaired and eventually lost. But hearing loss is not necessarily down to age, although there are cases where constant exposure to loud noise, over time, causes reduced sensitivity to aural stimuli. Over half of hearing loss cases are actually due to inheriting faulty genetic mutations from parents.

How do we hear? The hair cells of the inner ear called the cochlea respond to vibrations and these signals are sent to the brain to interpret. The brain processes these signals in terms of frequency, duration and timbre in order to translate them into signals we know.

For example, if we hear a high frequency sound of short duration that is shrill, our brain interprets these characteristics and then runs through a database of audio sounds, an audio library in the brain, and may come up with the suggestion that it has come from a whistle and may signify a call for attention.

What happens when you have a genetic hearing loss gene? The hairs on the inner ear do not grow back and consequently sound vibration from external stimuli do not get passed on to the brain.

With progressive hearing loss too, the characteristics of sound also get distorted. We may hear sounds differently to how they are produced, thereby misinterpreting their meaning. Sounds of higher and lower frequency may be less audible too.

How does that cause a problem? Imagine an alarm. It is set on a high frequency so that it attracts attention. If your ability to hear high frequencies is gradually dulled then you may not be able to detect the sound of an alarm going off.

As hearing gradually deteriorates, the timbre of a sound changes. Sharper sounds become duller, and in the case of the alarm, you may hear it, but it may sound more muted and the brain may not be able to recognise that it is an alarm being heard.

Another problem with hearing loss is the loss of perception of volume. You may be crossing the road and a car might sound its horn if you suddenly encroach into its path. But if you cannot hear that the volume is loud, you may perceive it to be from a car far away and may not realise you are in danger.

The loss of the hairs in the inner ear is a cause of deafness in humans, particularly those for whom hearing loss is genetic. Humans suffering from hereditary hearing loss lose the hairs of the inner ear, which result in the difficulties mentioned above. But there is hope. In a research experiment, scientists successfully delayed the loss of the hairs in the inner ear for mice using a technique that edited away the genetic mutation that causes the loss of the hairs in the cochlea.

Mice were bred with the faulty gene that caused hearing loss. But using a technology known as Crispr, the faulty gene was replaced with a healthy normal one. After about eight weeks, the hairs in the inner ears of mice with genetic predisposition to hearing loss flourished, compared to similar mice which had not been treated. The genetic editing technique had removed the faulty gene which caused hearing loss. The treated mice were assessed for responsiveness to stimuli and showed positive gains.

We could be optimistic about the results but it is important to stress the need to be cautious.

Firstly, the research was conducted on mice and not humans. It is important to state that certain experiments that have been successful in animals have not necessarily had similar success when tried on humans.

Secondly, while the benefits in mice were seen in eight weeks, it may take longer in humans, if at all successful.

Thirdly, we should remember that the experiment worked for the mice which had the genetic mutation that would eventually cause deafness. In other words, they had their hearing at birth but were susceptible to losing it. The technique prevented degeneration in hearing in mice but would not help mice that were deaf at birth from gaining hearing they never had.

Every research carries ethical issues and this one was no different. Firstly, one ethical issue is the recurring one of whether animals should ever be used for research. Should mice be bred for the purposes of research? Are all the mice used? Are they accounted for? Is there someone from Health and Safety going around with a clipboard accounting for the mice? And what happens to the mice when the research has ceased? Are they put down, or released into the ecosystem? “Don’t be silly,” I hear you say, “it’s only mice.” That’s the problem. The devaluation of life, despite the fact that it belongs to another, is what eventually leads to a disregard for other life and human life in general. Would research scientists, in the quest for answers, eventually take to conducting research on beggars, those who sleep rough, or criminals? Would they experiment on orphans or unwanted babies?

The second, when it comes to genetics, is whether genetic experimentation furthers good or promotes misuse. The answer, I suppose, is that the knowledge empowers, but one cannot govern its control. The knowledge that genetic mutation can be edited is good news, perhaps, because it means we can genetically alter, perhaps, disabilities or life-threatening diseases from the onset by removing them. But this, on the other hand, may promote the rise of designer babies, where mothers genetically select features such as blue eyes for their unborn child to enhance their features from birth, and this would promote misuse in the medical community.

Would the use of what is probably best termed genetic surgery be more prominent in the future? One can only suppose so. Once procedures have become more widespread it is certain to conclude that more of such surgeons will become available, to cater for the rich and famous. It may be possible to delay the aging process by genetic surgery, perhaps by removing the gene that causes skin to age, instead of using botox and other external surgical procedures.

Would such genetic surgery ever be available on the NHS? For example, if the cancer gene were identified and could be genetically snipped off, would patients request this instead of medical tablets and other external surgical processes? One way of looking at it is that the NHS is so cash-strapped that under QALY rules, where the cost of a procedure is weighed against the number of quality life years it adds, the cost of genetic surgery would only be limited to more serious illnesses, and certainly not for those down the rung. But perhaps for younger individuals suffering from serious illnesses, such as depression, the cost of a surgical procedure may far outweigh a lifetime’s cost of medication of anti-depressant, anti-psychotics or antibiotics. If you could pinpoint a gene that causes a specific pain response, you might alter it to the point you may not need aspirin, too much of which causes bleeds. And if you could genetically locate what causes dementia in another person, would you not be considered unethical if you let the gene remain, thereby denying others the chance to live a quality life in their latter years?

Genetic editing may be a new technique for the moment but if there is sufficient investment into infrastructure and the corpus of genetic surgery information widens, don’t be surprised if we start seeing more of that in the next century. The cost of genetic editing may outweigh the cost of lifelong medication and side effects, and may prove to be not just more sustainable for the environment but more agreeable to the limited NHS budget.

Most of us won’t be around by then, of course. That is unless we’ve managed to remove the sickness and death genes.

Is there any truth about the benefits of Classical music?

Is there any truth to the commonly accepted notion that listening to classical music improves mental capacity? Somehow it has been accepted in modern society that classical musicians have larger frontal cortices, better mental reasoning powers and perhaps intelligence quotients. Over the last two decades or so this idea has fuelled a rise in the number of pregnant mothers listening to classical music – whether or not they like it – and parents enrolling their children into music classes. The music of Mozart, in particular, has enjoyed a resurgence as its classical form is deemed to be more logical and organised, compared to music of other periods, assisting in triggering patterns of organisation in the brain amongst its listeners.

How did this idea about Classical music come about? In the 1990s scientists conducted a series of experiments where one group of students were played one of Mozart’s piano sonatas before a spatial reasoning test, while another group sat in silence. The group that was played the music beforehand performed better on that task than the control group. The effect on the control group was temporary and only lasted fifteen minutes, meaning that after the fifteen minute mark the disparities between the results were minimal and statistically the same. The results of the group found also that while music primed the individual particularly for mathematical tasks, after an hour of listening to Classical music, the effect on the brain was lost.

That piece of research was pounced on by the media and other individuals and seemingly perpetuated to promote the listening of Classical music. One governor of the state of Georgia even decreed that newborn babies be given a copy of a CD of Mozart’s works upon leaving the hospital. The Mozart Effect, to give it its common name, was written about in newspapers and magazines, and this began the spur of Mozart-related sales of music as well as the trend of mothers playing such music to their children in and out of the womb.

The most important question we need to ask is whether there is any truth in such research, and whether it can be corroborated.

We know that some forms of music has a soothing, calming effect on individuals. Playing the music to the students may have calmed that so they were not nervous, allowing them to perform better on the task. However, relaxation need not take them the form of Classical music. Any activity that promotes calm before a task – reading a light magazine, playing computer games, talking with a friend – can also hence be said to have the same effect as the classical music that was played.

What if the students in the group had read a joke book or comic beforehand, been less worried about the test and scored better? It might have prompted a deluge of articles claiming “Reading Archie (or The Beano – insert your own title here) improves your IQ”.

Or if the students had been offered a protein drink beforehand, it would not be inconceivable that someone would latch to that piece of research and declare that “Protein Drinks not just good for your body, but for your brain too”.

Mozart’s music has been said to embody the elements of classical music as we know it. Organised formal structures, chords and harmonies through related keys, use of contrasting tunes, contrasts in volume all feature in his music. But the music of other composers have such features too. Imagine if the composer Josef Haydn had been the lucky beneficiary of the experiment and his music had been played instead. The sales of his music catalogue would have hit the roof!

Subsequent scientists all found that listening to music of any form caused improvements, and the genre of music – whether rock or Classical – was irrelevant. But studies today still quote Mozart.

Is it ethical that the media promotes unsubstantiated research by reporting without closer scrutiny? As we have seen in previous blogs posts, the media reports on things without necessarily scrutinising the evidence, and entrusts so-called experts to corroborate the evidence, while it fills column inches and air time with modal auxiliary verbs? Huh? In simple terms, it means that if there is a sniff of a link between A and B, the media reports that “A could cause B”. Never mind whether it does or not, there is always the disclaimer of the word “could”.

In this instance, students performed better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to Mozart; hence the headline “Mozart could improve mental powers”. Diluted over several recounts, you could get “According to XXX newspaper, Mozart improves brain power” before arriving at “Mozart improves brain power”. Unfortunately, this is when the headline is then pounced on by anyone who would stand to profit from espousing this theme.

Who would profit from this? The Classical music world – performers, writers, musicians – can use this “research” to entice people into taking up lessons and buying CDs and magazines. If you read any music teacher’s website you may find them espousing the benefits of learning music; it is rare if you find one that advises it is a lot of effort.

The media will profit from such “research” because it means there is an untapped well of news to report and bleed dry in the quest for filling column inches and air time. News exclusives will be brought out, and so-called experts will also profit for appearing on the news and programmes, either monetarily or in the form of public exposure.

One must question the ethics of incorrect reporting. Unfortunately unsubstantiated research leads to more diluted misreporting, which can then form the basis of new research – research that uses these claims as the groundwork for investigation.

It is scary to think that all the medical research that has been done into effect of music and health could be biased because of the so-called effect of classical music. Could musical activities such as learning the piano help reduce Parkinson’s disease? Could listening to the music of Beethoven reduce the incidence of higher cases of Alzheimer’s disease? Could it all be wrong – have we all been sent down the wrong tunnel by an avalance of hype reporting?

It may be fair to say the human impulse is to buy first and consider later, because we are prone to regret. If we have missed an opportunity to improve the lives and abilities of our children, then we will be kicking ourselves silly forever with guilt.

So if you are still not convinced either way about whether classical music – either in the listening or the practice – really does have any effect, you could at least mitigate your guilt by exposing your child to piano music, for example that has predictable patterns in the left hand. Sometimes, listening to structurally-organised music such as from the Baroque may be useful, but it is also good to listen to Romantic music because the greater range of expression arguably develops a child that has more emotionally subtlety and intelligence.

You may find that ultimately, any truth in the research about Classical music and its mental benefits is not due to the blind passive listening, sitting there while the music goes on around your children. It is in the child’s inner drive to mentally organise the sounds that are heard, the trying and attempts to organise background sounds that really triggers the mental activity in the brain. It is more the practised ability in the inner mind to organise musical sounds that causes better performance in related mental tasks.

A smart person thought up the mental improvement products

The trail of human evolution is littered with gadgetry that have outlived their usefulness. We can add devices such as the fax machine, walkman, mini-disc and tape recorder to the list of machines which seemed clever at the time but have now before obsolete. Those of us of a certain age will remember newer additions such as the PocketPC, a palm sized screen which was used with a stylus that tapped out letters on screen, and the HP Jornada, a slightly bigger tablet sized keyboard and phone. And who could forget the Nintendo Brain Training programmes for the DS and Fitness Programmes for the Wii?

Launched in 2005, Nintendo’s Brain Training programmes claimed to increase mental functioning. Nintendo’s premise was that the concentration required in solving a variety of puzzles, involving language, mathematical and reasoning, increased blood flow to the frontal cortex of the brain, which at least maintained brain functioning or helped improve it. After all, since the brain is a muscle, exercising it by bombarding it with mental exercises would keep it active and healthy, right?

It is the idea of keeping the brain active that leads many to attempt their daily crossword or Sudoku. The latter in particular has seen an surge in interest over the past decade and is now a feature in newspaper back pages and magazines. There are even publications exclusively filled with Sudoku puzzles, and even more complex versions where each traditional puzzle forms a square in a bigger and complex three by three grid. If you thought doing a Sudoku puzzle was hard, imagine having to work on it in relation to eight others. It would be absolutely mind-boggling!

Is there any truth about the positive enhancements to the human life that these objects or activities bring? Nintendo’s claims about the Brain Training programmes were doubted by leading neuroscientists, who doubted the tenuous links between the increased blood flow to the brain and the vaguely described positive effects to life. It is akin to making a blanket statement saying chess grand masters or academics are the happiest people around. Unfortunately it is yet another case of a company creating a product and then engineering the science around it.

Manufacturers of beauty products do it all the time. Whether it is skin care or facial products being flogged, you will find an aspirational theme within the first five seconds of the advertisement (“Look beautiful! Stay young!”) which is then followed by a pseudo-scientific claim, preferably involving percentages (sounds more authoritative) and a small sample size (easier to corroborate, or disclaim, depending on the need).

“Live young forever. XX skin lotion is carefully formulated to retain your natural moisture, so you look and feel twenty years younger. 86% of 173 women noticed a change in skin density after using it for three months.”

There you have it. The secret of beauty product advertising.

Unfortunately, if there was any display of mental acuity, it was by the marketing team of Nintendo. In pitching a product to adults, using the retention and improvement of mental agility as a plus point, they not only convinced adults to buy what was essentially a toy, but to buy one for their children as well. The DS alone has since sold over 90 million units worldwide, and when you take into account the cost of games and all that, you will have to concede that someone at Nintendo had the smarts to produce a tidy little earner.

(For those who were more concerned with retaining their physical functioning, the Nintendo Wii Fit programmes performed that function and filled in the gap in that market.)

The improvement of mental functioning is always a good basis for marketing any product. You can find a whole plethora of products huddling behind it. Multi vitamins, activity puzzles, recreational activities involving multi-tasking – all supposedly give the brain a workout, but more importantly, tap into the fears of missing out or the loss of mental function in the human psyche, that makes people buy not out of potential gain, but fear of lost opportunity and potential regret.

The loss of mental function can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, for which there is currently no cure. With 30 million people worldwide suffering from it, this presents an endless river of opportunity for people researching the disease, as well as people developing products to improve mental function in the hope that it can stave off the disease. Like the Nintendo Brain Training developers realised, it is not so much about whether these scientific products work that makes people buy them – the evidence that is produced is biased and not independent – but it is the fear of missing out and retrospective guilt that compels people to make the purchase. Buy first, examine the evidence later, is the apparent dogma.

Unfortunately we are at the stage of modern society where it is not just the product that needs scrutiny, but whether the scrutiny itself needs scrutiny for evidence of bias, either in the form of financial ties or expected research outcomes.

Mental improvement is an area that product developers – whether the products be vitamins, books or applications – will continually target because human beings will always seek to improve mental prowess, both in themselves and their children, in the hope that somewhere down the line it offers an advantage, or prevents the mental degeneration associated with the aging process. And the compelling reason to buy lies somewhere in the meeting points of being seduced by the aspirational ideals the product offers, the fear of missing out, and the assumption that the underlying evidence is empirical. The greatest mental sharpness has been displayed by the one who has understood the sales psychology of mental health improvement products and used it to his or her advantage.

Set aside time and space for your own mental health

Work places huge demands on modern living. It goes without saying that over generations work demands have increased. For example, generations ago the concept of a traditional job for most people was a five-day working working week. The song “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton more or less captured the essence of work at the time. (Unfortunately, it is still fairly often played, to the point that people in non-Western societies assume we still only work eight hour days, five times a week, and spend our free time sunning ourselves on the beach.) Nowadays people have to work longer hours, and travel further for work. The total time spent each day traveling and working each day could easily amount to twelve hours, and it is not like the commute is down time – we still have to catch up on emails, admin, and type away busily on the laptop. We could easily spend sixty hours doing work-related things.

And the weekends? Forget the weekends. These days there is no distinction between a weekday and a weekend. Work has steadily grown its talons and where an hourly-rated individual used to get 1.5 or two times the normal rate for working on a weekend, these days it is the same. Employers realise that in an economy with job shortages, they can get away with offering less rates but will not be short of takers.

The problem with all this is that we don’t really have much of a choice when it comes to establishing our work boundaries or exercise or rights when we realise we are being pushed beyond our work boundaries. We’re made to feel that in these times, we are lucky to hold down a job, and if we complain about the increasing demands of it, and how higher managers try to force more work on us without increasing our pay, we might get told to take a hike and end up in a more difficult situation of having no job, commitments to uphold and having to start out again. There are lots of people trapped in jobs where they have to take on more and more as the years go by, and have every ounce of work and free hour extracted from them for little pay. This places increasing mental demands on the individual not just in having to cope with work demands, but the possibility of being made redundant if he or she shows weakness by having to admit an inability to cope any more. It is a no win situation.

Is it a surprising statistic that mental health illness is on the rise? Hardly.

Nowadays people are working more to live and living to work more.

What can you do to preserve some semblance of mental health?

The first thing you can do for yourself is to establish boundaries within the home. Establish a space where work does not intrude. A good idea is often the bedroom, or even have a rule that you will not work on the bed. If you end up working on your laptop in the bed, it will not do you any good – keep at least a certain physical space for yourself.

Also try to set aside a time each day for yourself if possible. It is possibly unrealistic to say an hour each day in the modern life climate, but something like twenty minutes to half an hour would be a good idea. Use this time to wind down in your personal space doing something you enjoy, that is different from work. You may think you cannot really afford that time, but it is important to disassociate yourself from work for the sake of your long-term longevity. Think of it as enforced rest. If it works better for you, take your enforced in the middle part of the working day. You don’t necessarily have to be doing something, use it to rest or catch a power nap.

Every now again, such as on a weekend, do something different from work. Do a yoga class, learn an instrument like the piano, or play a game of tennis. The possibilities for leisure are endless. But don’t bring your work approach to your leisure. Don’t start charting your tennis serve percentage, or do anything that makes your leisure activity appear like work in a different form. The only thing you must do with a businesslike approach is to meet this leisure appointment so that your life does not revolve around a continuous stretch of work.

We can moan about it but the nature of work will never revert back to how it was in the past. Those of us who long for the good old days will only make our own lives miserable with wishful thinking. Those of us who insist on working five-day weeks will find it is insufficient to maintain modern living in the twenty-first century. We will all end up working longer and harder in the current economic climate, and even if times improve, employers will be unlikely to go back to pre-existing forms of remuneration if workers have already been accustomed and conditioned to work at a certain level, because it is more cost effective to hire fewer employees who do more work than have the same work done by more employees. Employees have to recognise that adapting to increasing work loads are a working life skill, and that taking steps to negate increasing pressures will also be an essential part to maintaining our own mental health and well-being.

Why mental health problems will never go away

Many people will experience mental health difficulties at some point in their lives. As people go through life the demands on them increase, and over a prolonged period these can cause difficulty and ill health. These problems can manifest themselves both in mental and physical ways.

What kind of demands do people experience? One of these can be work-related. People may experience  stresses of looking for work, having to work in jobs which do not test their skills, or be involved in occupations  which require skills that are seemingly difficult to develop. Another common theme with adults that causes stress is having to work in a job which increasingly demands more of them, but does not remunerate them accordingly. In other words, they have to work more for less, and have to accept the gradual lowering of work conditions, but are unable to change jobs because they have already invested so much in it in terms of working years, but cannot leave and start afresh because the demands of a mortgage to pay off and a young family to provide for means they cannot start on a lower rung in a new occupation. Over a prolonged period, this can cause severe unhappiness.

Is it surprising that suicide affects men in their thirties and forties? This is a period for a man where work demands more, the mortgage needs paying, and the family demands more of his time and energy. It is unsurprising that having spent long periods in this sort of daily struggle, that men develop mental health problems which lead some to attempt suicide. But mental health does not just affect men. Among some of the this some women have to deal with are the struggles of bringing up children, the work life balance, the unfulfilled feel of not utilising their skills, and feeling isolated.

One of the ways ill health develops mentally is when people spend too long being pushed too hard for too long. Put under these kind of demands, the body shuts down as a self preservation measure. But the demands on the person don’t just go away. You may want a break from work. But this may not be possible or practical. In fact, the lack of an escape when you are aware you need one may be a greater trigger of mental illness, because it increases the feeling of being trapped.

It is little wonder that when people go through periods of mental ill health, an enforced period of short-term rest will allow them to reset their bearings to be able to continue at work, or return to work with some level of appropriate support. But this is only temporary.

With mental ill health problems, lifestyle adjustments need to be made for sufficient recovery.

Under the Equality Act (2010), your employer has a legal duty to make “reasonable adjustments” to your work.

Mental ill health sufferers could ask about working flexibly, job sharing, or a quiet room, a government report suggests.

The practicality of this however means more cost to the employer in having to make adjustments to accommodate the employee, and unless the employee is a valued one, whom the employer would like to keep, often the case is that they will be gradually phased out of the organisation.

In fact, when an employee attains a certain level of experience within an organisation, employers often ask more of them because they know these employees are locked in to their jobs, and have to accept these grudgingly, or risk losing their jobs, which they cannot do if they have dependents and financial commitments.
And you know the irony of it? The mental ill health sufferer already knows that. Which is why they don’t speak out for help in the first place.

If these employees complain, employers simply replace them with younger employees, who cost less, and who are willing to take on more responsibilities just to have a job. Any responsibilities the redundant employee had simply get divided up between his leftover colleagues, who are in turn asked to take on more responsibilities. They are next in line in the mental health illness queue.

And what if you are self employed? And have to work to support yourself and your dependents? The demands of the day to day are huge and don’t seem to go away.

You can see why mental health is  perceived a ticking time bomb. Organisations are not going to change to accommodate their employees because of cost, but keep pressing them to increase productivity without pay, knowing that they cannot say no, and when all the life and juice has been squeezed out of them, they can be chucked away and replaced with the next dispensable employee.

A ticking time bomb.