When we think about hearing loss, we often think about our ears. “My ears aren’t good as they used to be,” some may say. But, did you know that hearing loss actually happens in the brain?
As with all of our five senses, hearing is processed through tried-and-true neural pathways that process information from our external world and delivered to our brains, where we recognize familiar experiences – scents, tastes, and of course, sound. When sound waves enter our ears, it travels through the middle and inner ear and is transformed into an electric “signal” that is processed and catalogued in our brains.
With this understanding, it is important to note that untreated hearing loss does affect the way our brains function. Recent studies have pointed to a link between untreated hearing loss and an increased risk for dementia.
How Does Hearing Work?
Sound waves are picked up from the outer ear and travel through the ear canal. Then, sounds are amplified in the middle ear and sent on to the inner ear. Here, sound waves are translated by inner ear hair cells into signals that are sent to the brain to be processed.
The brain’s ability to process and recognize sound is what keeps us in touch with the world around us. Familiar sounds register in our brains through this process. This is how we recognize a favorite song, a loved one’s voice, a dog’s bark, or a fire alarm. In every part of our lives, our sense of hearing provides us with information about the world around us. With untreated hearing loss, the brain must work harder to make sense of this audio information.
Studies from Johns Hopkins Point to a Link between Untreated Hearing Loss & Dementia
In recent years, a number of studies from Johns Hopkins University indicate that there may be potential links between untreated hearing loss and dementia. The heavier work load for the brain, so to speak, is at the root of the issue in terms of hearing loss and dementia.
- In one study, researchers tracked 639 test subjects over the course of 12 to 18 years. They found that subjects with untreated hearing loss were more likely to develop dementia over the course the study. Furthermore, they found that that people with moderate hearing loss had three times the risk of dementia than people with normal hearing. The team of researchers, headed by Dr. Frank Lin, posited that hearing loss creates a heavier cognitive load for the brain, which overcompensates as it attempts to keep up with muffled signals received, and therefore tires out the brain.
- In another study, Dr. Lin and his team tracked the cognitive abilities of 2,000 older adults (average age 77) over a span of six years. In test subjects whose hearing loss interfered with conversation, researchers found that 24% of test subjects were more likely to have diminished cognitive decline, compared to subjects with normal hearing. In part, this may be due to the fact that when certain neural pathways are no longer in use, due to hearing loss, different areas of the brain may be affected. Overall, they found that untreated hearing loss accelerated cognitive decline.
In addition to the effects on the brain and cognitive abilities, hearing loss leads to social isolation. With untreated hearing loss, people struggle with verbal communication. Over time, difficulties with speech recognition may lead to the avoidance of social situations. Breakdowns in interpersonal relationships, due to miscommunications, could also lead to withdrawal from our most important relationships. Research on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease reveals that if we remain more socially engaged, we are less likely to develop dementia. Engagement with our friends and loved ones keep us active – and also our brains!
Listening and Communication Enhancement Program
Whether you wear hearing instruments, are just acquiring devices, or simply wish to improve your listening skills, LACE – Listening and Communication Enhancement – training will help you get the most out of the sounds of life. Because it is a computerized, internet-based program, we can track your results and discuss them with you.
Hearing vs. Listening
Did you know that we don’t really hear with our ears? Ears do the listening, but we hear with our brain. Hearing instruments can help a person detect softer sounds, but they don’t necessarily provide good listening skills.
Even people with normal hearing can be poor listeners. Good listening skills are one of the essential components in effective communication. These abilities can be damaged both by hearing loss and by the natural aging process. LACE is designed to enhance the ability to communicate by training the brain to best utilize these skills.
Muscle Memory Training for Your Hearing
LACE is an acronym for Listening and Communication Enhancement. Conceived by leading audiologists at the University of California at San Francisco, LACE is an interactive computerized training program that helps improve your ear-to-brain muscle memory.
LACE focuses on the five challenges of listening:
- Speech in background noise (like restaurants or parties)
- Rapid speech (when people are speaking quickly)
- Competing speaker (two people are speaking and the “noise” is other people near them speaking)
- Missing word (If you miss a word in a conversation, can you still understand the message?)
- Auditory working memory (If you miss a piece of the conversation, how long does it take you to accurately understand what was said?)
- LACE has already helped thousands of people who live with some degree of hearing loss increase their listening skills by up to 45%. Just as physical therapy can help rebuild physical strength and compensate for weakness, LACE can assist in developing listening, communication, and interaction skills.
Ask our staff about purchasing this program to improve your listening skills today!
Don’t Ignore Your Loss of Hearing
Hearing loss often comes on gradually, making it hard to detect as it is happening. Once treated, people are often amazed at the sounds that they have been missing — birds chirping, water running in the faucet, the refrigerator humming — many of which they have not heard for years.
I ignored my hearing loss for the typical 7-10 years — hiding behind the stigma my father taught me to feel about hearing loss. As a child I watched him pull away from family and friends, and falter at work as he struggled to accept his hearing loss. So when the first audiologist I visited told me my hearing loss was too mild to treat, I used it as an excuse to retreat into denial.
Today, much more is known about the risks associated with hearing loss, including mild hearing loss, making it clear why we can no longer take the chance of ignoring it — even in its early days. Below I describe five critical reasons why you should not overlook your hearing loss. Please add to the list in the comments.
1. You may be pushing people away.
My father was embarrassed by his hearing loss, never discussing it and hiding his hearing aids behind long sideburns he grew for this purpose. He avoided social situations because he was worried he could not hear, and did not want to risk having someone discover his secret. He chose to isolate himself, which left him bitter and alone.
Avoiding people and refusing to let them in on your struggles pushes them away — even those that are closest to you. Don’t let this happen to you. Acknowledge that hearing loss can be exhausting given the extra mental effort that is required simply to hear, but commit to making your best effort. It will be worth it.
2. You are probably not hiding anything.
Keeping your hearing loss a secret is not doing you any favors. In many instances, people already know, or worse yet, they think you are stupid or not paying attention to them. While my father tried to hide his hearing loss from everyone, people could tell there was a problem, but because he was uncomfortable discussing it, we all pretended we didn’t notice, putting up walls that eventually grew too powerful to scale.
It was difficult at first, but once I accepted my hearing loss and began telling people about it, I felt such relief. The pressure to hear everything perfectly all of the time was gone and I felt empowered to ask for the assistance I needed. Most people are willing to accommodate you if you explain the situation.
3. Higher risk for dementia and other health problems.
It feels like every day a new study is revealed that links untreated hearing loss to a higher risk of mental decline. You can find some of them here, here and here. It is terrifying that hearing loss is linked to such an unwanted condition, but the good news is that in most cases, treating the hearing loss had an important mediating effect. This is probably because people who acknowledge and treat their hearing loss have better luck communicating with others, likely lowering their isolation and feelings of depression.
Hearing loss is also associated with higher incidences of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and falls. While causality is unclear, the links are not, making your hearing loss an important part of your overall health that cannot be dismissed.
4. You have options to help you communicate better.
Technology for people with hearing loss is advancing rapidly. Not only are hearing aidsgetting more sophisticated, but other types of assistive listening devices are more prevalent. You can find caption readers at the movies, and increasingly, T-coil technology in theaters, public spaces and houses of worship. Many museums and cultural institutions also offer accessibility options for people with hearing loss.
Speech-to-text apps are becoming more commonplace, with Google recently announcing a new and improved version for Android phones. Personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) also exist. One example, Bose Hearphones, has received positive reviews from several of my hearing loss friends. With the launch of over-the-counter hearing aids in the next year or so, even more options will be available and at a wider range of price points. This is exciting news for those of us who want to hear our best.
5. Your hearing loss impacts the people that you love too.
Hearing loss is not only frustrating for the people who have it, but for their family and close friends too, especially if the person with hearing loss is unwilling to admit they have a problem. Even when I am wearing my hearing aids, my family must make a point of facing me when they talk to me and speaking at a reasonable pace, otherwise I won’t understand them. Without my hearing devices, conversation is even more challenging.
I appreciate the efforts my family makes on my behalf and I believe I owe them the same consideration. Taking control of your hearing loss is an important way to show those that you love how much you value your relationships with them. When we work together, we can make communication easier and more engaging for all of us.
Founded in 2017, Southwest Hearing Clinic uses their extensive knowledge and expertise to help the people in their community maintain and regain their ability to hear, converse, and enjoy life.
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