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When it comes to hearing loss, we often think only about our ears. But the truth of the matter is that hearing happens in the brain, and living with untreated hearing loss has a major impact on your brain health too. In fact, a new study shows how hearing loss affects the brain, and suggests that we take hearing loss very seriously, seeking treatment as soon as possible to do the right thing for our brains.
Hearing in the Brain
Hearing starts in the ear, but that’s not where it ends. When sound vibrations enter your ear canal, they’re directed towards the middle ear, or tympanic membrane. The middle ear vibration causes movement in the fluid-filled inner ear, where delicate hair cells sense these vibrations and convert the sound waves into electrical impulses. These are sent up the auditory nerve into the brain, where your brain interprets the electrical signals as sound, allowing you to hear the sounds in your environment.
Studying Hearing and the Brain
A recent study from the University of Colorado’s Department of Speech Language and Hearing Science examined neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and form new neural networks and pathways. The brains of children and young people have a lot of neuroplasticity that allows them to learn and develop new skills quickly and easily. Older adults’ brains aren’t quite as flexible, but neuroplasticity still allows you to learn new things, and adapt to new settings. However, when it comes to hearing loss, neuroplasticity could actually be doing more harm than good. Researchers took EEG scans of the brain’s activity when responding to sounds, and this allowed them to see how people with various levels of hearing loss experience sound.
Adapting to Hearing Loss
When you have hearing loss due to damage of some of the cells in the inner ear, your brain is no longer receiving a full spectrum of signals about the sounds in your environment. The cells related to those particular sounds aren’t receiving any input, and this creates a big problem. Your brain adapts to this new situation by reorganizing or reallocating cells that aren’t being used effectively, and certain cells are given new jobs to do.
When you live with untreated hearing loss, neuroplasticity takes over, and the unused cells in your auditory centers get reassigned to other senses like vision or touch. The brain adapts to changing needs, but this ultimately comes at a high cognitive cost.
When you have hearing loss, you face rapid rates of cognitive decline, and this study sheds some light on why that might be. While your brain’s ability to adapt can be wonderful in some instances, in the case of hearing loss it has a detrimental effect.
When your brain reorganizes to adapt to hearing loss, it has a harder time processing sounds, and you’ll have a difficult time hearing and understanding speech. Even with mild hearing loss, the auditory areas of your brain become weaker. When you strain to hear, areas of the brain usually reserved for higher cognitive function step in to try to help you hear, and that’s why you often feel like you can hear almost everything that’s been said, but can’t understand the sentence. Your cognitive function has been affected by your hearing loss.
“The hearing areas of the brain shrink in age-related hearing loss,” explains Anu Sharma from the University of Colorado. “Centers of the brain that are typically used for higher-level decision-making are then activated in just hearing sounds. These compensatory changes increase the overall load on the brains of aging adults.” Clear hearing is important to cognitive function, and treating hearing loss is shown to improve cognitive function and your ability to focus on tasks, think logically, and have a high quality of life.
Treating Hearing Loss Early
Treating hearing loss as soon as possible is the key to having a healthy brain. Your hearing centers in the brain will stay active and healthy, processing all the sounds around you. This will keep your higher cognitive centers focused on more important tasks, like focusing at the office, and spending quality time with your loved ones.
Visit us today at Professional Hearing Services to learn more about how treating hearing loss is good for your ears and your brain.