Did you know that you do not hear with your ears!
This sounds strange but the ears and the brain need to work together for you to understand and interpret sounds. The ears are the transmission line which capture sound and send it to the brain for interpretation. The outer ear captures sound, sends it down the ear canal where it strikes the eardrum and starts it vibrating. These vibrations are transferred to the 3 middle ear bones, the hammer, anvil and stirrup. The sounds are amplified here and transferred to the middle ear. Here the sounds travel through the inner ear fluid and cause certain hair cells to be stimulated. The hair cells change the vibratory energy to electrical energy and sends these electrical signals along the hearing nerve into the brainstem and up to the auditory center of the brain. In the auditory cortex the sound is processed in regards to its pitch, volume, harmonics, melody and rhythmic patterns. WOW! That is a whole lot of goings on once the sound gets up to the brain!
When we are born, the auditory area is a blank slate. The words and sounds we hear have no meanings to us but we like to hear them. They make us feel pleasure when mother speaks with us. We are alerted when we hear a loud sound and may get scared and cry. We search our world for sounds we hear and learn from where they originate. We begin to fill in our blank slate by learning that words have meanings. MOM is a person who cares for us. BALL is that round thing that is fun to play with. OUR NAME causes us to look to see who is talking to us. MUSIC is fun to move to. We learn to associate sounds with words and things. Our brain will then throughout our lives compare the sounds we hear with the memories of sounds on the slate of sounds in our memory banks so that we can understand.
When hearing loss occurs some entire sounds or parts of other sounds do not reach the auditory area so the brain has to guess at the blanks or gaps that occur in the sound that is reaching it. When you have to guess at words whether it is “fix” or “six” or “feel” or “seal” then misunderstanding or lack of understanding occurs. While the brain is attempting to fill in the blanks, that takes time and the conversation has progressed and more is lost. The brain needs to receive as much information as possible so that it can correctly interpret conversation and with hearing loss it misses some of that information. As hearing drops, more information is missed and understanding worsens.
Consequently, with hearing loss we notice understanding abilities worsen and with that we also notice other things also occurring. First off, with hearing loss we find that a person’s guality of life is reduced. Conversation is more difficult and it takes more effort to understand others so it is not as much fun to go to parties, out to dinner, to church services or meetings. Gathering with family and grandchildren are more stressful because of the difficulties in understanding the conversation and participating in that conversation.
Untreated hearing loss also affects our health. Cardiovascular disease and diabetes is more commonly found when these are present. With the withdrawal from everyday activities due to difficulties communicating the risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s rises significantly. When not hearing well people tend to become more isolated socially which can lead to relationship problems with family, friends, loved ones, loss of income or earning power, depression, anxiety and generalized anger. Untreated hearing loss also deprives our brains of stimulation and we forget what it was like to hear and over time it makes it more difficult or even impossible to regain the pathways that have been weakened due to the lack of stimulation. In fact, older adults with untreated hearing loss have shown accelerated shrinkage in the auditory area of the brain which may not be recoverable later. (Johns Hopkins and National Institute on Aging studies). This is what we call the “use it or lose it” factor. The faster the stimulation to the brain can be returned after a hearing loss develops the better a person will do with hearing aids.
Most hearing loss is due to aging or what we call presbycusis. These type of nerve losses due to wear and tear on our bodies are correctible with hearing aids. With hearing aids a person will never hear “normally” studies show that over 90% of hearing aid users are satisfied with their improved levels of comprehension and their improved quality of life. Recent studies also show that even in adults, our brains show the ability to develop other areas to help with hearing. This “plasticity” of our brains comes with practice while utilizing the proper stimulation from hearing aids.
Keeping our brains healthy means getting lots of sleep, having regular physical exercise, healthy diets and engaging in mind challenging activities such as crossword or picture puzzles, sudoku, reading or even computer games.
For our ear health, get a baseline hearing examination at age 50 or sooner if you notice difficulties hearing. If a hearing loss is found, do something about it immediately!! Addressing the loss will improve your quality of life and improve your relationships with family, friends and loved ones while preventing health and social deterioration in the future.
If you have questions regarding your hearing. Please feel free to contact me at my office.
Franklin A. Shepel, Au.D
Board Certified Doctor of Audiology