It”s fiddly putting in a hearing aid with no fingertips: Sir Ranulph Fiennes faces one of his greatest challenges
| UPDATED:21:08 GMT, 31 March 2012
Over the past few years, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, one of the world’s foremost explorers, has battled a litany of health problems. In 2003 he underwent a triple bypass after suffering a major heart attack that left him in a coma for three days.
He has also fought prostate cancer, lost the fingertips of his left hand to frostbite – he famously amputated the blackened ends himself with a saw in his shed in frustration at having to wait for a hospital appointment – and has developed arthritis in his right hip and right hand. He attributes the latter to sleeping in wet and cold conditions during his expeditions, which include treks to the North and South Poles.
So it will come as no surprise to learn that the 67-year-old former SAS officer, who made history by becoming the first British pensioner to conquer Everest, refuses to give in to his latest health setback without a fight. Sir Ranulph is suffering from age-related deafness.
Sir Ranulph covering his missing fingertips
His hearing problems started about three years ago and are, like those of most sufferers, irreversible. ‘I wasn’t really aware of it at first as it never affected my day-to-day business,’ he says.
‘And it was never a problem on any of my recent expeditions. Admittedly, I had a couple of problems when I was climbing Everest in 2009 but I put that down to my climbing partner, who refuses to use walkie-talkies.
‘But when my wife Louise kept telling me I had the television on too loudly or that I kept saying ‘‘what’’, I suspected something was wrong. Like many people, I explained away my symptoms, often accusing Louise of mumbling.
‘The hearing had deteriorated in my right ear, so I could only hear people properly when they were on my left side. But the main problem was when I struggled to hear what people were saying during the question-and-answer sessions after lectures.’
Like many people, Sir Ranulph – a cousin of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes, and also of the Prince of Wales – chose to ignore his hearing problem until last summer, when he made a trip to Boots in Exmoor, Devon, where he lives with Louise and daughter Elizabeth, five.
‘They were offering free hearing checks and I thought, why not. I had nothing to do that day and so took advantage of the offer. I didn’t tell Louise I was going, because she’d been telling me for ages to go and have a test and I didn’t want her to think she’d been right all along. It would be one up to her.’
The test revealed he was struggling to hear higher frequencies. This is due in part to age-related hearing loss, or presbyacusis, and he has since been fitted with digital hearing aids in both ears. Unlike old analogue devices, which were little more than amplifiers, digital aids can be programmed to suit the individual and adjusted for different situations.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes on one of his expeditions
Sir Ranulph says: ‘I had spoken to one or two male friends who reckoned they would be unyielding and look dreadful. But you can’t see I am wearing mine. They clip neatly around the back of my ears and the microphones slip into my ear canals. The only problem I have is fitting an aid into my left ear. I have very little feeling in my left fingertips after hacking them off, but I’ve now learnt to do it with my right hand.’
Hearing loss happens to everyone as a natural part of ageing. Forty-two per cent of Britons aged 50 and above experience hearing loss to some degree, with this figure rising to nearly three-quarters for the over-70s. One person in seven in the UK has problems with hearing and struggles for up to 15 years before seeking help.
It affects the hair cells in the inner ear, which transmit signals to the brain via nerves. Everyone is born with 16,000 of these but they die as we age, and by 65 we have lost about 40 per cent. The deafness is caused by the degeneration of the microscopic hairs in the ear, which pick up soundwaves, along with the cells in the inner ear. The effects of the condition can be exacerbated by long-term exposure to loud noises, and Sir Ranulph believes his hearing loss was probably accelerated by his time as a tank commander in the Army. He recalls: ‘Everyone had earplugs but nobody wore them as it was considered wimpish.’
Sir Ranulph refuses to wear hearing aids every day, even though he was advised to. ‘I use them when I need them. If I think the family will get stroppy when watching TV, I put them in, and I take them with me to lectures. I’m happy to use my hearing aids but I’m not the sort of man to wear them just because I’m told to.’