En español | For Lou Ferrigno — star of the 1970s and ‘80s CBS series The Incredible Hulk and two-time Mr. Universe winner — physical strength has always been a defining aspect of his career. Just as the actor and bodybuilder, 69, has worked hard to build his iconic physique, he's put in major effort to overcome a lifelong obstacle: hearing loss.
After a series of childhood ear infections left him with profound hearing loss, Ferrigno began, at age 4, to rely on hearing aids. But recent hearing deterioration in his right ear prompted him to undergo surgery to insert a cochlear implant — an electronic device that helps restore hearing by stimulating the auditory nerve. The result, he says, has been “life-changing."
"The best hearing aid in the world is not going to give me the clarity of the way I hear now,” Ferrigno tells AARP. “With a hearing aid, you have to force yourself to work hard to listen to the words, but the cochlear implant makes it much easier."
Ferrigno was motivated to get the implant after learning that a close friend's word discrimination — a measure of how well someone can understand what he hears — jumped from 12 to 98 percent after getting the device.
"That really put the message in my head,” he says, “that maybe I should give it a shot.”
After undergoing surgery earlier this year, Ferrigno committed to a program of hearing therapy and rehabilitation, to adjust to the device after it was activated (you can watch his reaction to the activation in the video below). The subsequent improvement in his hearing has been significant, he says: His word discrimination has increased from 18 to 65 percent so far.
Unlike traditional hearing aids, which amplify sound, cochlear implants transmit sounds as electrical signals that are carried from the auditory nerve to the brain. This allows people who, like Ferrigno, have sensorineural hearing loss (hearing loss due to damage to the inner ear or hearing nerve) to improve their understanding of the sounds and speech around them.
In Ferrigno's case, the device has allowed him to distinguish certain parts of speech, like “s” sounds, with greater clarity than before. (Although he notes that he's also had to get used to unpleasant sounds, like noisy kitchen appliances.)
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The improvement is a welcome one for Ferrigno, who recalled the struggle of growing up with hearing loss at a time when the condition was highly stigmatized — a struggle that he says originally motivated him to take up bodybuilding and weight training as a means of self-empowerment.
"When I was fairly young, most people didn't understand what a hearing aid was [or] hearing loss,” he says. “I knew that the only person to help myself would be me.”
Ferrigno says that his speech and diction have improved because of the implant, a confidence-boosting change that he's hoping to harness as he approaches future roles and speaking engagements. The actor is now encouraging others with hearing loss to investigate whether a cochlear implant is right for them.
"I waited a long time,” he says of the implant decision. “I should have done it sooner.”
Cochlear implants: what to know
- What they are: A cochlear implant has two parts: a device embedded under the skin behind the ear and a removable external sound processor. The implanted device contains electrodes that are threaded through the cochlea, the snail-shaped portion of the inner ear that facilitates hearing.
- How they work: The device receives input from the external sound processor and converts it into electrical signals that are sent to the cochlea. This stimulates the auditory nerve, which carries these signals to the brain, where they can be interpreted as sound. The input someone receives from a cochlear implant simulates, but is not identical to, natural hearing.
- What to expect: Receiving and using a cochlear implant is a multistep process. First, patients have surgery to install the device, which is typically an outpatient procedure. After several weeks the external processor is attached and an audiologist activates the device. Then, patients commit to a program of hearing therapy, to learn to process the input from their device in order to hear.
- Who qualifies: Cochlear implants are approved for use in children and adults. Adults with severe or profound hearing loss who are not helped by hearing aids are generally eligible, but candidacy depends on several factors. For more information about eligibility, contact your audiologist or medical provider.
Sarah Elizabeth Adler joined aarp.org as a writer in 2018. Her pieces on science, art and culture have appeared in The Atlantic, where she was previously an editorial fellow, California magazine and elsewhere.