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.

What is Single-Sided Hearing Loss?

Hearing loss is a pervasive medical condition that 1 in 8 people navigate in the U.S. Impacting over 40 million people, hearing loss has various causes and can be experienced differently. Impairment can be mild to severe and affect one ear more than the other. Single sided – also known as unilateral – hearing loss is impairment in one ear and severe forms can be referred to as single-sided deafness. This type of hearing loss (like all types of hearing loss) should be addressed and treated as soon as symptoms are identified! 

Understanding Hearing Loss 

Hearing loss is the third most common chronic health condition among older adults. There are several factors that can contribute to its development including: 

    • Existing medical conditions: such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke increase the risk of hearing impairment. 
    • Exposure to loud noise: one time or consistent absorption of increased levels of noise can cause permanent damage. People are easily exposed to loud noise while listening to music, in the workplace, sports arenas, concerts etc. 
    • Aging: known as presbycusis, structural change that naturally happens over time can impact hearing

Other causes are head and/or neck injuries, viral or bacterial infections, and genetic history. These factors disrupt the ears and brain’s ability to process sound which involves: 

    • Outer Ear: the most visible part of the ear collects soundwaves from the environment which travels down the ear canal and lands on the eardrum. 
    • Middle Ear: the ossicles – three connected bones – help push the soundwaves further into the inner ear.
    • Inner Ear: the cochlea – filled with thousands of hair cells and fluid – translates soundwaves into electrical signals that are then sent to the brain to process. 

Damage to any of these components interrupts this process, making it difficult to hear and understand incoming sound information. Most commonly, the hair cells in the inner ear are damaged which prevents them from helping the brain translate soundwaves. Because these hair cells do not regenerate, the damage and resulting hearing loss is permanent. 

Single-Sided Hearing Loss

As previously described, both ears play an integral role in absorbing and processing sound. Hearing loss in one ear means that you have less capacity to identify and register sound. This causes: 

    • Reduced ability to locate sound: it becomes difficult to hear and know where sounds are coming from. The brain typically uses both ears to locate sound – the ear that absorbs the sound waves determines the direction of where the sound is originating from. So only being able to hear out of one ear affects the brain’s ability to easily locate the sound.  
    • Difficulty hearing in environments with background noise: noisier settings provides more sound for the brain to process which distracts from focusing on a conversation. Only having one ear to take in sound, including background noise, makes it even more difficult to filter through all of this sound. 
    • Struggling with volume: hearing through both ears also allows the brain to register the accurate volume of sound. Single sided hearing loss effects volume perception. 
    • Cognitive overload: because the brain has to do more work to process sound, this can overload cognitive function causing it to take longer to understand what you are hearing. This may make it challenging to focus on and complete daily tasks with ease. 

Single-sided hearing loss is treated the same way general hearing loss is treated and it is important to intervene as soon as you notice symptoms. 

Seeking Treatment 

Fortunately, there are several useful ways that hearing loss is treated. The first step in addressing your hearing health is scheduling an appointment for a hearing test. Conducted by a member of our team, hearing tests involve a noninvasive (and painless) process that measures hearing ability in both ears. This identifies any impairment and the degree of hearing loss you may be experiencing. 

The most common treatment for hearing loss is hearing aids. For single sided hearing loss and depending on the degree, there are a few options: 

    • Moderate hearing loss may simply require a typical hearing aid worn on the affected ear
    • CROS (contralateral) hearing aids: designed for people with severe hearing loss in one ear and includes a transmitter on the affected side and a receiver on the other ear. This system works to detect sound through the affected ear and route it to the functional ear. 
    • BiCROS hearing aids: this type of hearing aid works in the same way but is for people with moderate hearing loss in one ear. 

If you believe you are experiencing a hearing loss, contact us today to schedule an appointment!