When you think of hearing loss, you might immediately think of the ears. It seems intuitive that the ears are the location where hearing takes place, and in a sense that is true. Ears are the remarkable organs that collect sound vibrations, amplify them in a way to notice subtle differences, and transform that sound into electrical impulses that travel to the brain through the auditory nervous system. However, in another sense, hearing actually happens in the brain.
Although the ears do remarkable work to transform acoustic energy into something the brain can understand, the brain is the hub where understanding takes place. For this reason, the sensory functioning of the brain is one of its primary purposes. In a high-risk situation, the brain is a first line of defense, using sensory perception to alert us to danger and to give instructions for a fast response.
Hearing is particularly useful to signal a potential threat that is beyond the range of sight. With this crucial functioning of the brain in mind, you might wonder what would happen if the brain were deprived of auditory information to process. Recent research demonstrates that auditory deprivation can have a powerful negative effect on brain health, extending to not only the portions of the brain devoted to hearing but to other dimensions, as well.
Auditory Deprivation and Brain Health
When your hearing is fully functional, the brain does amazing work to process tiny differences in sound. Consider the differences in how a word is pronounced from one person to the next. With these subtle variations, you can decipher the identity of a speaker without even seeing the person. You can detect slight changes in tone of voice to understand the meaning of a speaker, as well. The brain devotes significant processing power to comprehending human speech. However, when the brain is deprived of auditory information to process, recent studies using imaging technology have discovered that the brain can convert its processing to the visual domain.
When this conversion takes place over and over again, the brain can atrophy in regions usually devoted to hearing. Other studies have discovered a complementary process. The regions of the brain that are normally devoted to processing complex thought can be reappropriated in the struggle to understand speech. One study even found that young people who had very slight hearing loss demonstrated different regions of their brains in action, trying to understand speech. Researchers predicted that this reappropriation of gray matter could have a significant effect on ongoing brain health.
Connections with Dementia
This mechanism is a potential explanation of the connection between hearing loss and dementia, as well. In fact, those who have hearing loss are more likely to develop dementia than their counterparts without hearing loss. They are also more likely to have a rapid decline in mental functioning once dementia sets in. One of the explanations for this connection is the reconversion of brain power from other functions to the struggle to understand speech when a person has untreated hearing loss. Without assistance from hearing aids or other technology, the brain scrambles to put together a meaningful idea out of a random assemblage of syllables. If hearing loss makes that process too difficult, the brain can have serious problems making sense of things, even contributing to dementia and cognitive decline.
The good news is that those who get treatment in the form of hearing aids have demonstrably better brain health than their counterparts who do not use assistance. In some studies, the negative effect of hearing loss on cognition is wiped out by the use of hearing aids! It seems that by restoring the ability to provide complete audio information to the brain, that region is able to thrive once again.
When it comes to hearing loss, “Use it, or lose it!” is a principle to consider! With hearing assistance, you will stand a much better chance of fighting off brain atrophy, as well as the possibility of an earlier onset of dementia. When it comes to your brain health, hearing loss treatment is truly a no brainer!