Can Hearing Loss Damage the Brain?
CAN HEARING LOSS DAMAGE THE BRAIN?
The simple act of hearing is something that is easily taken for granted. There may be times in our lives when we are very thankful that we heard something – a beautiful song, someone saying “I love you,” or the warning sound of a horn that kept us from danger – but during the course of our lives, it is rare that we take the time out to think about what life would be like if our hearing declined.
Unfortunately, it’s a simple fact: age-related hearing loss is a condition that will affect nearly everyone to some degree. Did you know that nearly 70% of adults age seventy and over suffer from hearing loss that interferes with their ability to communicate? And sadly, research shows that hearing loss, if left untreated, can cause many other emotional and physical problems as well. Let’s take a few moments to look at why we lose hearing as we age, how it effects our bodies, and what we can do to minimize the impact of hearing loss in our lives.
HEARING LOSS DUE TO AGING
The most common cause of hearing loss is simply use and abuse over time. In order to hear, our ears must capture the sound waves around us. The sounds our ears capture come to us in waves of vibrations that travel to the inner ear. The inner ear contains thousands of small hairs that are attached to nerves that travel to the brain. As the sound vibrations move over the hairs, the hairs trigger the nerve cells to send signals to your brain.
As we age, the hairs and the nerve cells in the cochlea are subject to wear and tear. After a certain point of damage, the hair cells become limp and can no longer process sound vibrations effectively, and hearing loss occurs.
OTHER FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO HEARING LOSS
Many factors other than age can further reduce our ability to hear. Heredity certainly plays a role in hearing loss: if your parents and grandparents experienced hearing loss as they aged, then it is likely your hearing will decline as well. Ear wax, infections, growths and tumors can keep sound waves from reaching the inner ear. If you were exposed to high levels of noise in your line of work, or if you chose to listen to loud music at any point in your life, this exposure will increase the rate at which your hearing declines. Finally, some illnesses and ototoxic medications like chemotherapy and antibiotic drugs can damage with hearing as well.
HOW HEARING LOSS AFFECTS OUR BRAINS
Hearing loss is often so gradual that it may go unnoticed for months, or even years. Even when a person thinks he or she may not be hearing well, it is quite easy to shake off minor hearing loss and pretend that everything is fine.
Sadly, this is one of the worst decisions that can be made. First of all, hearing loss can result in social, emotional, and psychological problems. Studies have shown that people who live with hearing loss tend to be unhappier than their peers who can hear. These people tend to become more easily frustrated, tense, irritable, and angry. Without being able to hear, they can become more insecure and nervous about the world around them. Any or all of these factors can lead a person to withdraw from the world around them. In turn, that withdrawal can trigger another loop in the downward spiral of emotional health. Ultimately, these problems can lead a person to become anxious and fearful, and can lead to significant depression.
An additional risk of leaving hearing loss untreated is that hearing loss worsens with time. This happens for two reasons. First, the hearing nerves in our ears, like the other muscles in our bodies, need exercise. When the nerves are not used because sounds are not reaching them, they weaken. The weaker they become, the less they can help us hear; the less they can help us hear, the weaker they become. The pattern is that of a vicious downward spiral. The longer hearing loss is left untreated and the weaker the nerves become, the more difficult it becomes to offset the problem with hearing aids.
In addition to nerve weakness, portions of your brain are weakened with hearing loss as well. After a sound reaches the nerves in your ears, those nerves send a signal to your brain. Specific parts of your brain are set aside just to process these signals so that you can understand what you heard. Just like the nerves, the brain works like a muscle, and if those hearing centers aren’t given enough exercise, the brain will weaken, and even shrink in size! When the brain is not getting enough exercise from hearing, this is known as “auditory deprivation.” And just as our emotions and our nerve endings decline in a downward spiral with hearing loss, so does our brain. The longer the brain goes without hearing, the more the brain weakens; the more the brain weakens, the less-well it processing hearing. Eventually, the damage to the brain is so great that the brain will actually shrink in size and our ability to understand language can be lost.
As you can see, the ability to hear is a “use it or lose it” proposition. Once hearing declines, if steps are not taken to boost a person’s ability to hear, that person’s ability to hear (as well as their emotional state) are both destined to continually decline.
As if that’s not enough bad news, recent studies have shown that auditory deprivation not only reduces the function of the hearing centers in our brain; it actually reduces our total brain function. Long-term studies of people, as well as brain imaging studies, have shown that untreated hearing loss causes our loss of brain power as we age to speed up by 30-40%!
People with even mild hearing loss have a 200% greater risk of their mental abilities declining to such a severe level that it interferes in their daily lives. This is known as Dementia. People with moderate hearing loss are 300% more likely to develop Dementia, and those with severe hearing loss are 500% more likely to develop this dreaded disease.
ADDITIONAL CAUSES OF AUDITORY DEPRIVATION
Clearly, the most common cause of auditory deprivation is when a person chooses not to treat their hearing loss. However, improper use of hearing aids is a culprit as well. While using an aid in only one ear may seem tempting from a financial standpoint, this setup results in weakening the unaided ear, which then leads to nerve and brain damage. Also, hearing aids that are not properly fit or programmed will cause damage as well.
CAN HEARING AIDS REVERSE BRAIN DAMAGE FROM AUDITORY DEPRIVATION?
Unfortunately, very little clinical research is currently available to answer this question, though many clients of Hearing Central have demonstrated positive effects of hearing aids and auditory therapy on brain function. It is clear that the brain’s ability to recover from auditory deprivation declines the longer hearing loss goes untreated. Without a doubt, the best approach is to treat hearing loss as soon as it is detected, so that brain health does not become a concern.
WHEN TO HAVE A HEARING TEST
Hearing Central believes that everyone over the age of 50 should have their hearing tested annually. The importance of regular hearing exams cannot be stressed enough, especially if you have a family history of hearing loss, a history of ear wax build-up, a history of exposure to loud noise (at any age), and/or a history of infections, growths or tumors.
With hearing tests available free of charge at hearing centers such as Costco and Sam’s Club, there is no financial reason for hearing loss to go undetected. If you are uncomfortable going to a retail location and would prefer to see a doctor, most health insurance, including Medicare will cover routine hearing tests.
Hearing Central would like to encourage you to be your own advocate. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you that the television is turned up too loud. Don’t live in denial of your condition. When you take one small step to potentially improve minor hearing loss, you may actually be taking a giant step toward warding off Dementia. The power is in your hands.
Provided Courtesy of Hearing Central LLC and HearingCentral.com
Written by Edward A. Maznio, Licensed Hearing Aid Specialist HAD4599
Toll Free 1-877-611-4636