Hearing Health is Brain Health How Hearing Aids Keep Your Brain Fit
Imagine, after practicing for weeks, your daughter is saying grace for the very first time at your family’s Thanksgiving gathering. For you, the proudest moment of all was going to be the look on your mother’s face as your daughter so eloquently recites her words. Instead, your mother was expressionless. It was plain and simple. She couldn’t hear your daughter’s sweet voice from across the table. The moment was missed. It was gone.
This scene is all too familiar in many homes during the holidays to the degree that some family members may choose to disengage from conversations after pretending to follow along. It can be just too difficult trying to constantly decipher all the moving parts and to make sense of so much information. Yes, a conversation is heard, but the words are not understood.
Hearing aid? Me?
Are you or someone you love having trouble hearing, but reluctant to consider hearing aids? Most often, hearing loss sneaks up on you. Suddenly, one day, you notice that you no longer hear your cat purring or the birds singing. Perhaps you experience difficulty understanding when two or more people are talking or frequently ask people to repeat themselves. Believe it or not, the average time someone with hearing loss waits to seek treatment is nine years! Understandably so, it’s not easy to come to grips with the notion of wearing hearing aids…It may feel, dare I say…old. Well, here’s the good news. Today’s hearing devices are not the big ‘ole bananas on top of your ears from the olden days. The ‘not so good news’ is, if you do have a hearing loss, and nothing is done about it, then that’s nine years of cognitive decline that is easily preventable.
Social isolation and diminished quality of life are just a few of the potential downsides of waiting. For the first time, we are seeing scientific evidence about hearing loss and healthy brain aging that may provide just the incentive you need. Studies have shown correlations between hearing loss in aging adults and a greater risk of cognitive decline and possibly the onset of dementia. People experience a rapid deterioration in memory, language, thinking and judgment. “When you actively use hearing aids, you are more likely to stay socially engaged, one of the primary ways to stimulate your brain,” says Kelly Mitchell of Southern Maine Audiology in Falmouth. “And like any exercise, the mental give-and-take of social interaction helps to keep your brain fit and slow down the accelerated decline linked to hearing loss.” Hearing loss is the most common chronic health condition affecting aging adults. However, despite numerous studies showing the link between hearing loss and the risk of cognitive decline, less than 75% of people with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids actually use them.
Hearing Power is Brain Power
Although hearing loss is most commonly considered an inner-ear problem, it is actually your brain that performs several functions simultaneously to process sound. It uses your ears to help ground your body position, recognize sounds, zero in on sounds you want to hear, and separate important information from irrelevant noise. It’s your brain that does the lion’s share of the work.
Therefore, if left untreated, hearing loss tremendously affects your daily living. When the hearing nerves lose their function and no longer channel sound signals to your brain, it “forgets” the sounds over time and becomes unable to understand them. The brain center for hearing stores sounds for up to three years following the onset of a hearing loss. Thereafter, your memory becomes weaker and weaker. Thus, it is important to have your hearing tested and hearing aids fitted when you first discover that you are losing some of your hearing.
Hearing Aids Keep You Engaged
Another recent scientific study showed that people with hearing loss who actively use hearing aids have a lower risk of mental decline as they age because they tend to stay more engaged in an active social life. Staying in the game of life while taking care of your hearing maximizes your opportunities to stimulate your brain. Kelly points out, “When the sound signals from your ears are compromised by hearing loss, your brain has to work even harder to fill in the gaps. This extra effort can take its toll. When you have hearing loss, your brain doesn’t receive the sound information it needs to understand what is being said and expends more energy trying to fill in the blanks.” Conversations become difficult and exhausting and you may start to withdraw and avoid the social connections that are so important for brain health. The newest hearing aids with BrainHearing™ technology take a proactive “brain first” approach, providing the clearest, most accurate speech signal possible so that your brain doesn’t have to work as hard to understand what is being said. The mental effort you need to understand speech in a noisy environment is minimized so you can conserve the cognitive resources you need to engage in socializing and other brain-stimulating activities. By restoring the ability to communicate, hearing aids with BrainHearing™ technology allow you to participate more easily in conversation, even in noisy settings like restaurants or social gatherings. It separates speech from noise and lets you focus on what’s important. Kelly shares that “the hearing aid works in harmony with your brain to process sounds fast, with better speech understanding, less listening fatigue, and best of all, it even helps you to remember more of your conversations.” The result is a more natural, effortless listening experience. This means less demanding mental processing throughout the day so you can engage more actively in everyday life.
New Study Shows Hearing Loss Impacts Brain Function
Another new study indicates that our brain “reorganizes” when we start to lose our hearing. The study, done at the University of Colorado’s Department of Speech Language and Hearing Science, looked at how neuroplasticity — how the brain reorganizes itself by forming new neuron connections throughout life — plays into the adaptation of the brain after we start to lose our hearing. The study sought to answer two questions:
- How does the brain adapt to hearing loss?
- What are the resulting implications?
Neuroplasticity is, in effect, the brain’s ability to change at any age. Conventional wisdom used to view the brain as static and unable to change; scientists now know this is not the case. In the case of hearing loss, the part of the brain devoted to hearing can actually become reorganized, i.e. reassigned to other functions.
The participants in the study were adults and children with varying degrees of hearing loss; some had only mild hearing loss while others were severely hearing impaired or deaf. Using up to 128 sensors attached to the scalp of each subject, the team of researchers used EEG recordings to measure brain activities in response to sound stimulation. By doing this, they were able to understand how the brains of people with different degrees of hearing loss respond differently than those of people with normal hearing.
Perhaps most importantly, the researchers found when hearing loss occurs, areas of the brain devoted to other senses such as vision or touch will actually take over the areas of the brain which normally process hearing. It’s a phenomenon called cross-modal cortical reorganization, which is reflective of the brain’s tendency to compensate for the loss of other senses. Essentially, the brain adapts to a loss by rewiring itself. It is a makeover of sorts, but one that can have a seriously detrimental effect on cognition.
In those with hearing loss, the compensatory adaptation system significantly reduces the brain’s ability to process sound, which in turn affects a person’s ability to understand speech. And even with mild hearing loss, the hearing areas of the brain become weaker. What happens next is that the areas of the brain that are necessary for higher level thinking compensate for the weaker areas. They step in and essentially take over for hearing, leaving them unavailable to do their primary job.
“The hearing areas of the brain shrink in age-related hearing loss,” said Anu Sharma, PhD, a researcher on the University of Colorado study. “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. Compensatory brain reorganization secondary to hearing loss may also be a factor in explaining recent reports in the literature that show age-related hearing loss is significantly correlated with dementia.”
Compensatory brain reorganization could explain why age-related hearing loss is so strongly correlated with dementia, and why it must be taken seriously. Even in the early stages of hearing loss, the brain begins to reorganize. Knowing this, the solution could be as simple as early hearing loss screening programs for adults. Getting ahead of the decline through early intervention could prevent long term cognitive issues down the road.
So, the question is less about whether or not you want to wear a hearing aid and more about whether or not you want to continue to engage your brain. Oh, about those important moments of life; like the sweet sound of your granddaughter’s voice from across the Thanksgiving dinner table? That counts too!
So, don’t wait to give your brain the stimulation it needs. It’s never too late to take care of your hearing health! For more information about hearing, hearing loss and the newest hearing aids with BrainHearing™ technology, visit: www.smahearing.com or contact Kelly Mitchell or Angela York at Southern Maine Audiology directly at 781-7200.