We answer questions about how a hearing loss impacts your life, and whether you should DO something about it.
Hearing automatically brings information to the brain, and it is always switched on. Even when we are asleep, the auditory system is awake and alert in order to ensure that we are safe. We are social creatures, so we use our hearing for communication. Our interactions are very important to us. All of our relationships rely on understanding each other, and for this to occur, we need to easily share our thoughts and feelings with each other. We talk about what we think and how we feel, but we also think about and respond to what we hear! Because of this critical interaction, hearing loss has a marked impact on our experience of our lives.
When you can hear easily, you learn all the time.
As a child, you hear your mother talk to you and so you learn how to make your mouth do what hers does. Speech and language develop quickly because you can hear. You hear singing and music, and so you learn melody, lyrics, rhyming, rhythm and patterns. You hear your teachers talk in the classroom and you can learn easily- even when a teacher is explaining a complicated theory to someone else! You learn to hear the tone of happiness and the tone of anger. You learn to relate sounds to letters and all of a sudden, you can read….just like that!
But not if you can’t hear. Children with even partial hearing loss learn oral speech and language much more slowly. A hearing loss can also affect how you produce your own speech sounds (you hear yourself and this feedback is necessary to learn to speak properly).
If you are an adult whose hearing loss has developed later on in life, you start to miss out in the difficult environments, first. You think that people are mumbling (Why don’t people speak clearly anymore- are they lazy?)! When it is noisy around you, you find yourself concentrating, asking for repetition and becoming frustrated or switching off in company. The television seems muffled, and turning it up louder may help, but sometimes it’s just annoying and not necessarily clearer. People with accents are more difficult to understand, and call centres are practically impossible! When your spouse talks to you from another room, you feel like they are talking through a blanket- it’s just a muffle of sound with no clarity at all. Your children have told you that you aren’t hearing them properly.
In fact, it’s quite astounding that a change in the ear can cause so much trouble.
The ear is a pathway to the brain. If you are experiencing symptoms that indicate a change in your hearing, it is important to visit an audiologist to discover the reason and extent of the change.
It’s important because some types of hearing loss can be caused by infection, fluid and growths in the mechanical part of the ear. Mostly, these can be treated medically or surgically and your natural hearing can be restored. Rarely, infections and growths can have the potential to become life-threatening, so early identification really matters.
If a hearing loss is not caused by the conductive or mechanical part of the ear, it may be caused by a deterioration in sensitivity of the nerve fibres. These fibres are housed in the inner ear or cochlear. It is also very important to have an assessment, because a loss of nerve sensitivity causes a reduction in the volume of certain sounds reaching your brain. It also causes your brain to start missing some of the important cues to identify sound. We can tell the difference between ‘sit’ and ‘fit’ because our ear nerve can pick up some of the cues that are different between the sounds ‘s’ and ‘f’. Initially, when this becomes more difficult, our brains fill in the missing bits by using the rest of the sentence. We start to play a type of hearing ‘hangman’ where we are guessing the missing bits of sound by process of elimination from what we can hear. However, this takes effort and concentration, so it becomes so tiring to do it.
Studies on hearing loss tell us that eventually, our brains start to have more trouble with recognising the words we hear, and that this will deteriorate more over time with untreated hearing loss. If we intervene early, studies suggest that we will be able to recognise sound more effectively, for longer. The field of Neurology would also suggest that when we stimulate the nervous system with replaced or compensatory sound, we are ensuring that the nerve fibres retain their structure and function more effectively. While there are no direct causal studies, there is research to suggest that when we treat hearing loss early, we provide consistent information to the brain. We stimulate our thinking and therefore avoid more rapid cognitive decline when our hearing loss is properly managed.
On the basis of all of this evidence, and our experiences with our patients, we have to conclude that hearing matters. It matters A LOT. That’s why we think hearing is important.