How Treating Hearing Loss Supports Your Brain

Hearing loss is one of the most common problems we encounter as we age, though it can also occur earlier in life from excessive noise or chemical exposure. Various studies over the course of recent decades have demonstrated just how important it is to treat hearing loss to prevent what can become a cascade of negative outcomes for our health and well-being. Unfortunately, people still wait an average of 7 years from the time they notice hearing loss to the time they do something about it.

Why Hearing Loss Increases Fatigue

One of the first complaints we hear from people who are new to hearing loss is just how exhausting it is. Holding a conversation becomes less and less pleasant as we have to strain to hear the other person. We try to put bits and pieces of information together from what we hear, aided by context and facial cues, and the stress this puts on the more developed “thinking” part of our brain, the frontal lobes, causes us to become weary.

Hearing Loss and Neuroplasticity

Over time, as we rely more and more on extra-auditory information to converse, the auditory cortex in our brain actually starts to atrophy. This feature of our brains is called “neuroplasticity,” and while sometimes it’s a very good thing, allowing us to adjust to new circumstances, in the case of hearing loss it is speculated that the changes in the brain related to hearing loss actually lead to memory problems and, eventually, earlier onset of cognitive decline and dementia.

Untreated Hearing Loss Can Lead to Dementia

The statistics about hearing loss and dementia are compelling and troubling. It seems that those with mild hearing loss are at double the risk for dementia, while moderate hearing loss increases the risk to threefold, and those with profound hearing loss are five times likelier than those with normal hearing to develop dementia.

Prior to the onset of dementia, untreated hearing loss has more immediate effects on the brain. As the auditory cortex atrophies, we actually lose the ability to comprehend speech, even when we can hear it clearly. This is why many hearing healthcare professionals offer training courses for those new to wearing hearing aids; it can take some time and experience with regained hearing ability to re-learn how to hear human speech.

Hearing Loss and Brain Atrophy

The atrophy of our auditory cortex doesn’t mean that the brain cells are gone. Unlike hearing loss itself, which is unfortunately permanent, the associated brain atrophy can be reversed. Rather than the brain cells dying, it’s more like the space around them compacts and shrinks. When we start using this part of our brains again, it can return to functioning.

However, it’s best not to wait until we see changes in our brains to start treating hearing loss. The best time to start wearing hearing aids is when we have trouble hearing, but have not yet seen significant changes to our brains or lifestyles as a result. Treating hearing loss earlier let’s us continue on with our lives almost as though hearing loss is not an issue.

Hearing Aids Can Help

Modern hearing aids really are marvels of technology. Far from the old, beige, whistling units we may have been used to seeing on our parents’ generation’s ears, hearing aids today are both smaller—and thus less conspicuous—while also being infinitely more powerful.

DSP engines (digital signal processing) allow modern hearing aids to not only amplify sound, but to help reduce background noise, improve spatial location of sounds, and integrate with Bluetooth and other technologies to keep us connected to the devices we use on a regular basis. In some cases, hearing aids can actually improve our ability to hear better than normal!

Get a Hearing Test

The Better Hearing Institute, a non-profit organization, recommends getting a hearing test once every decade until age 50, and once every three years thereafter. Because we’re usually slow to realize that we have hearing loss, keeping track of our hearing health in this way allows professionals to advise us about the state of our hearing ability and potentially make lifestyle changes that will allow us to prevent further hearing loss, or slow its progress. If you’re due for a hearing test, make an appointment for one today and give your ears, and your brain, the attention they deserve!

Monitoring Daily Noise Exposure Could Help Prevent Hearing Loss

Frequent noise exposure is an unfortunate fact of modern life, especially for those living in urban environments. Light rail trains rattle by, diesel engines power large trucks that we encounter whether walking or driving, HVAC units thrum down alleyways, and thousands of other noise sources come together to create a recipe for noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). While NIHL is unfortunately permanent, it is also completely preventable.

Average Noise Exposure

Average noise exposure is difficult to measure exactly, but it can be estimated with reasonable usefulness. Average noise exposure is a calculation of the average decibel rating for the total amount of sound we encounter in the course of a day. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) uses 85 dBA (decibels A-weighted) as the maximum average noise level that a person should be exposed to in the course of a workday. It should be noted that the workday constitutes 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week—it does not amount to the total amount of noise a person should be exposed to because it does not include any sound encountered outside the timeframe of a typical full-time job.

Occupational Noise vs 24-Hour Average

NIOSH assumes that 85 dBA is the maximum average level of sound that a person can be exposed to for 8 hours before NIHL sets in. Other organizations place that figure closer to 80 dBA, and some research suggests that even 75 dBA can cause hearing loss if exposure remains constant for long enough. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a maximum average noise exposure of 70 dBA over a 24-hour period.

80 dBA is about the noise you encounter when running a lawnmower. A typical conversation happens between 60–70 dBA, and a rock concert might reach 110 dBA. At 110 dBA, it only takes a couple minutes to cause NIHL.

Measure Environmental Noise

As you can see, anything louder than a normal conversation will cause hearing loss if exposure is maintained for longer than a few hours. If you’re not sure what the levels of your environmental sound are, try downloading a smartphone app that measures this. It may be called an “SPL meter” or a “decibel meter.” These apps will usually automatically keep an average while they are running. However, they should not be relied upon for a perfectly accurate reading, as any handling of your phone will spike the meter and make the average dBA louder than it actually is. For that reason, you cannot simply start the app and then carry your phone with you throughout the day to measure your average noise exposure.

It is also impossible to measure the sound you encounter in earbuds with your smartphone. Because they sit inside your ears, the distance from your eardrum and the amplifying effect of your own ear canal cannot be taken into consideration without Real Ear Measurement, a type of measurement used by audiologists to fit hearing aids.

Wear Ear Protection

As mentioned above, NIHL is preventable. Earplugs or earmuffs should be worn any time you expect to encounter loud sounds. It’s also important to cover your ears when sirens go by—they can reach up to 120 dBA! If you use earbuds, keep the volume as low as you can. It may also be helpful to switch to over-the-ear headphone models, which can help attenuate outside sound while also keeping their drivers (speakers) at a safer distance from your eardrums.

 

If you encounter extremely loud sounds on a regular basis, it’s important to make sure that your ear protection is doing the job. Whether you use disposable, reusable, or custom-fitted earplugs or earmuffs, make sure to check the amount of attenuation they provide. When you measure the sound in your environment, subtract the amount of attenuation your ear protection provides from the measurement you get. If the number is still greater than 80 or 85 dBA, you should opt for earplugs that provide greater protection.

Noise-Canceling Headphones

Noise-canceling headphones can be a good option for those who spend a lot of time in vehicles or airplanes, or otherwise encounter a lot of continuous, even noise. Noise canceling headphones use an active system to recreate the noise from the environment and play it through their own drivers, but exactly 180 degrees out of phase. That may sound complicated, but basically it means that by the time all the noise gets to your eardrums, it’s canceled out to nearly 0 dBA. Noise-canceling headphones, however, do not work for extremely loud environments or quick bursts of sound.

Get a Hearing Test

If you’re concerned that you might have NIHL, schedule a hearing test today and find out. It’s important to start keeping track of your hearing health as early as possible, so you can make sure you’re effectively preventing NIHL before it becomes a more serious problem.

Tips for a Successful Virtual Family Reunion

It seems like the only thing we can rely on in 2020 is that everything will be different than it has been in the past, and our holiday traditions are not likely to be an exception. Many families will be holding their holiday gatherings virtually this year. In some sense, there couldn’t be a better time for our family gatherings to go virtual, with widespread video conferencing technologies in place and high-bandwidth internet more common than it’s ever been.

Still, with difference comes the need for adaptation. With a little planning and foresight, you should be able to have a holiday gathering that, while distant, will allow you and your loved ones to feel connected this season. Here are a few ideas to help you along the way.

Establish Expectations

With everyone meeting online, it’s best to have firm plans for when the meeting will begin and end. Everyone will be able to plan better and feel less stressed if they know when they’re expected to be available and what type of activities might be going on. 

If you’re planning to eat together remotely, everyone will need their meal ready at the same time and will need a way to broadcast themselves and see you from their dining area. 

If you’re playing a game of Pictionary together (easy with Zoom’s whiteboard feature), the scene might be set differently. Some members of your family may have other family groups they need to meet with as well, so make it easy for everyone by establishing clear plans about when video conferences will occur.

You might wish to create a printable schedule of events so that family members can keep it posted on their fridge and be reminded of meeting times. Add a touch of flair with holiday clip art or festive backgrounds!

Test Technology In Advance

While some members of your family might be professionals with video conferencing technology, others might not have used it at all. Talk to everyone in advance and see how comfortable they are using Zoom, Google Meet or whatever platform you’ll be meeting on. If someone needs some assistance, maybe one of the “pros” in your network can show them the proverbial ropes.

You don’t want to fall behind schedule or have food getting cold while someone who is new to video conferencing has to be talked through the process, so make sure everyone knows how to sign on, and be seen and heard, in advance of the scheduled celebration.

Adapt and Maintain Traditions

Holiday gatherings are a time for us to come together and reaffirm each other in our ways and traditions. While it might seem tempting to put them on hold this year, try to think of ways they might be adapted for the moment. Do you normally watch a movie together? You might be able to watch while staying connected on the video conference. If you play board games, you can likely find an online version of one of your favorites.

Video conferences can become hectic when many people are connected audibly at once, so if your traditions involve verbal contributions from every family member, try collecting these in advance and designating one person to read them all.

Consider Everyone’s Needs

Video conferences can be difficult for those with autism, ADHD, or another speech or language disorder. Talk to these family members or their guardians in advance to see whether they’ll be available for some portion of the celebration, and try to plan something they’ll enjoy for the part they’ll be present for.

Remind everyone to participate on the largest screen they have available. Smartphones can be wobbly or need to be held, which can get tedious after a while. A laptop can be easily set on a surface so you can focus on each other instead of the devices you’re using.

Give Communications Gifts In Advance

If you’re planning to give a communication-oriented device as a gift to a loved one, send it in advance of the holidays and encourage them to open it early, so it can be used during your online celebrations! Some gift ideas include:

  • Webcam lighting kits, to brighten them up on their screens
  • TV adapters and amplification systems, so they can hear the TV audio directly in their hearing aids and adjust the volume independently
  • Phones and phone accessories, like Bluetooth-capable devices or amplified phones for when they’re not wearing their hearing aids
  • Hearing aid supplies like batteries or communication-oriented accessories

Most importantly, have a happy and joyous holiday to remember!