Nobody wants to face hearing loss, but dealing with hearing issues when they arise helps support more than just your ears. Research in the past decade has shown that failing to treat hearing loss has serious repercussions for our total health and takes an especially big toll on our cognitive functioning.
Studies have found that people with untreated hearing loss suffer from a much higher incidence of cognitive diseases like dementia and memory issues. Leaving hearing loss unchecked can also lead to issues with balance and coordination making a person susceptible to physical accidents and injuries. These health issues are serious – and treating hearing loss can help reduce risk and minimize the cognitive burden hearing loss can create.
Hearing and Your Brain
Hearing is one of the five senses we use to understand the world and our hearing works through an intricate system of sensing and interpreting sound. Our ears are highly specialized organs that contain the tiny sensors our body uses to perceive sound. Inside the inner ear, miniscule patterns of hair cells are responsible for picking up the vibrations of sound waves in the environment. In the middle ear, very small and delicate bones are capable of perceiving sound vibrations as well.
Simply perceiving sound is just the first part to our sense of hearing. Sound signals, once detected are sent to the brain via pathways in the auditory nerve. The auditory cortex of the brain is then primarily responsible for interpreting the direction and meaning of the sound signals. Our brains are needed to craft meaning from speech and identify the sources of sound.
Hearing Loss and Cognitive Health
When our hearing is healthy, the brain is able to interpret sound swiftly and naturally so that we seldom notice the rapid processing. When hearing problems occur, however, it throws a wrench in the gears and can create escalating cognitive difficulties.
Hearing loss often begins with damage to the ways our ears detect sound. Hair cells are finely tuned to their job and acute sensors of sound. Unfortunately, because of their fineness, they can also be easily damaged. Exposure to excessive loud noises, infections of the ear and even trouble with blood circulation can all cause damage to these delicate sensory cells. Hair cells do not have the ability to repair or replace themselves so damage to a hair cell often places it out of commission permanently.
We are born with a big array of hair cells in the inner ear that helps us access a full palette of sound. The pathways of our auditory nerve are forged with this full range of hearing. With each hair cell killed, a small gap in our hearing is created. As bigger and bigger gaps emerge in our ability to detect sound, our auditory system has to find ways to compensate for missing information.
While the brain is used to creating meaning from a full range of sound signals, when those signals are incomplete, the brain needs to do extra work to piece together meaning. Hearing loss fundamentally changes the way our brain interprets sound. Unused pathways in the auditory nerve atrophy as new routes for sound signals are forged. The brain also has to pull in additional cognitive focus from other activities to sort out the meaning in auditory signals. This reorganization of the brain strains our cognitive functioning and can be frustrating and exhausting.
Cognitive Functioning and Hearing Health
When hearing loss is left untreated, the brain is pulling attention away from other important mental tasks. Scientists and researchers cite this as an important factor in the link between hearing loss and cognitive problems. Continued mental staining may encourage the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. It can detract from our ability to coordinate our physical actions or correctly perceive obstacles. Hearing loss left untreated will not only worsen, it creates a drag on the entirety of our cognitive abilities.
There is good news however. Modern hearing solutions help alleviate the mental drain that hearing loss creates and can help support brain function even in the face of significant hearing loss. As research points the way, cognitive support can be a key factor in controlling other health issues. Solutions like hearing aids help the auditory system relearn natural paths of hearing and restore missing information to the auditory palette. When you face hearing issues, treating hearing loss offers not just immediate assistance, but also continual cognitive support. Contact us at Hearing Health today to schedule a consultation.