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Hearing Trouble

A simple test can help.

Early Connections in Tiny Brains continued...

In contrast, older sister Veronica didn't receive her first hearing aids until shortly after her first birthday. They failed to improve her hearing significantly, so when she was two, she received a cochlear implant -- a tiny electronic device that is surgically implanted in the inner ear. It stimulates the auditory nerve, sending sound signals straight to the brain.

Veronica is now 6, and while her hearing is normal, her speech skills have tested at one to two years behind her peers. Samantha, on the other hand, is now just over a year old and is blurting out words like an 18-month old. "That's the difference early detection can make," says Miller. "Veronica missed out on those first two years, and those years are so important."

Advances in Treatment

Most people don't realize that today's hearing aids are so effective that in all but the most serious cases, people with hearing impairments can be made to hear as well as anybody else, says White. Cochlear implants can be used in cases where the child's own cochlea (the nautilus shell-shaped organ in the inner ear that translates sound into vibrations the brain can interpret) is so damaged that hearing aids simply won't work. With the help of these advances, both of the Miller girls are now hearing at or above normal levels despite being born nearly deaf.

Having two hearing-impaired children in the same family is not unusual. While some hearing problems are caused by environmental conditions like ear infections, the vast majority are caused by congenital defects. And though 90% of children with hearing impairments are born to parents with no hearing problems at all, once a couple has a child with hearing problems, the odds are one in four that subsequent children will have similar problems, according to NCHAM researchers. And that, says Laura Miller, is why she pushed so hard to have Samantha's hearing tested.

A Screening for Every Child

Advocates for the hearing-impaired argue that every child should have the same chance Samantha got. "Our goal is to see that every child gets a screening at birth," said Elizabeth Foster, director of the National Campaign for Hearing Health, a Washington, D.C.-based group that promotes awareness of hearing issues. "Every day that goes by when a child's hearing problem is not identified is a day that is lost for auditory and verbal development."

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