While it is a popular belief that hearing loss only affects our ears, the reality is that our brain is also impacted. Though hearing loss is the third most common medical condition in the US, it is often left undiagnosed and undertreated. The effects of untreated hearing loss radiate to many different areas of our lives, including our physical and mental well-being. Here, we take a look at how hearing loss and fatigue are linked.
Our ears are certainly important apparatuses for hearing: the outer ear picks up sound and the middle ear amplifies it, with the ear drum turning sound waves into vibrations. These vibrations are then sent to the inner ear, where they are translated into neural signals. These neural signals travel well-worn pathways to the auditory processing center in the brain, where they are processed and recognized as familiar sounds. With untreated sensorineural hearing loss, this process is interrupted due to problems with the inner ear hair cells. Inner ear hair cells are damaged by exposure to loud noises, ototoxic (poisonous to the ear) medication, or other illnesses and injuries, such as tumors. As a result, the brain struggles to make sense of unclear sound signals, which leads to a heavier cognitive load.
Untreated Hearing Loss Affects Cognitive Abilities
At Johns Hopkins University, a series of studies have indicated that untreated hearing loss leads to a heavier cognitive load. Because the brain has to exert more effort to process unclear sound signals, it must use resources designated for other cognitive functions, such as memory or concentration or balance, to process auditory data. In one study, researchers tested the cognitive abilities and hearing abilities of over 600 participants and tracked them over a span of more than 12 years. They found a direct correlation between the decline of hearing abilities and cognitive abilities. Dr. Frank Lin, a head researcher in these studies, points to an increased risk of developing dementia with untreated hearing loss. According Healthy Hearing, “when hearing is normal, these three areas of the brain work with the auditory system to interpret sounds and produce speech: the temporal lobe, where the primary auditory cortex is located; Wernicke’s area, located in the temporal lobe on the left side of the brain and is responsible for speech comprehension; and Broca’s area, located in the lower portion of the left frontal lobe, responsible for speech production. When hearing loss is present, the brain must work harder to make sense of the information it receives from the inner ear, which can be mentally exhausting.”
Seeking Treatment for Hearing Loss
A 2011 study from Japan looked at the hearing abilities and cognitive abilities of participants and found that people who treated their hearing loss with the use of hearing aids performed on the same level in cognitive tests as people with normal hearing. Conversely, people who did not treat their hearing loss performed cognitive tasks with more difficulty. Another 2011 study, from Vanderbilt University, shows that people with mild to severe sensorineural hearing loss had “better word recall and their [visual] reaction times were significantly faster with hearing aids than without.” It may be difficult to first recognize the signs of hearing loss; learn more about the signs here. If you believe you – or a loved one – may be experiencing changes in your hearing, contact us at Ear to Hear at one of our many locations across the country. We provide free comprehensive hearing tests and otoscopic exams.
How to Cope with Hearing Loss Induced Fatigue
Treating hearing loss with hearing aids does bring significant benefits to your overall health and well-being – and this includes less exertion of your cognitive abilities to decipher unclear sound signals. However, with hearing loss, you may experience some fatigue throughout the day, especially when you first get fitted for hearing aids and are learning to adjust. If you are in noisy environments all day, it may help to take small breaks from the noise. Find a quiet place or go for a quick walk to clear our brain. Use your lunch hour at work to go to a quiet place, read a book rather than watching a TV or movie, or use this time to meditate. You may also take out your hearing aids for a short period of time, just to relish the quiet. Meditation is a helpful tool for all people, especially those who work in stressful settings. To meditate, block out 15 to 20 minutes at first and find a quiet place to sit. Take deep breaths, and focus on your breath when inhaling and exhaling through your nostrils. If you’re not into meditation, you may also consider a power nap. The National Sleep Foundation says a 20-30 minute nap could help improve alertness and brain function.