Bella Bathurst was just 27 when she first noticed a problem with her hearing. To begin with, the loss was so gradual that she almost wasn’t aware of it happening.
‘During conversations, I’d catch only a couple of words then try to second-guess,’ she says. ‘I convinced myself it was only temporary.’ But within 18 months, ignoring the problem was no longer an option.
When conversation was reduced to ‘a low seaside roar’ and traffic noise to a few ‘auditory exclamation marks’ — she could hear a car horn or a door slamming, but no sounds in between — she saw her GP, who referred her to the audiology department at St Mary’s Hospital in London.
Bella, now 47, an award-winning writer who lives in Herefordshire, says it was ‘the fear of being bad at my job’ that made her get help. She had started work on her first book on the Stevenson family of engineers who built the Scottish lighthouses.
‘Every time I replayed an interview, at top volume, so I could hear it, I realised how many times I had interrupted people mid-flow or talked over them,’ she says. ‘It made me feel so stupid and unprofessional. I felt humiliated, old and deeply ashamed.’
She felt worn out from the effort of listening. ‘I’d sleep for ten hours and still wake up exhausted as I was working ten times harder just to receive and process auditory information.’ Tests revealed Bella had lost 50 per cent of her hearing. The audiologist concluded this was probably the result of bangs to her head several years before.
For the next 12 years Bella lived with the diagnosis, her hearing deteriorating until it was just 20 per cent of normal range. Then she was diagnosed with a condition that was treatable with surgery. After her operations, Bella can hear perfectly.
There are 11 million people in the UK with a form of hearing impairment, according to Action On Hearing Loss, with the majority of cases age-related; 41.7 per cent of the over-50s will have hearing loss, increasing to 71.1 per cent of the over-70s.