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!