Can an inability to hear affect brain tissue? Apparently so. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have shown that areas of the brain can atrophy from lack of sound. According to the study, people with uncorrected hearing loss might be more prone to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and experience anxiety, depression, and diminished social contact.

Additionally, researchers are discovering that hearing is cognitive and not mechanical. Sound waves enter through the outer ear and travel through the tiny bones of the inner ear and into the brain. Real hearing and interpretation of sound occurs within the temporal lobe of the brain. The hearing and balance centers in your brain work together, which is why people with hearing loss experience tinnitus and balance issues.

Also, the hearing and balance centers of the brain help you orient to sound. People with normal hearing can sense the direction of sound. You lose that ability as hearing loss progresses. You might not think it important to know where sound is coming from until you are walking or driving. When in traffic, I’ve been startled by a horn’s blare and had to twist and turn and check mirrors to determine the direction of a police car, fire truck, or ambulance.

Knowing that our brains play an active role in hearing helps us understand why hearing loss should be treated. Yet most people let seven years pass before deciding on treatment. That was the case for me. At age twenty six, I was diagnosed with a thirty-five percent loss. Though aids were recommended, I decided not to purchase them because I could hear well enough. I never realized how hard I was working to hear until I started wearing aids, ten years later.

There are many choices of aids and implants to correct hearing loss. A good ENT physician and audiologist can guide you. Hearing aids and cochlear implant technology has improved greatly in the forty years since I started wearing aids. Newer aids are equipped with artificial intelligence and brain hearing capabilities. Aids equipped with artificial intelligence use microscopic chips that instantly assess hearing environments and adjust background and boost female voices and other high-pitched sounds as needed. All hearing aid manufacturers now have a version of artificial intelligence in their products.

After a month long trial, I recently purchased aids with A.I.. Now I hear environmental and household sounds loud and clear. My ability to carry on a phone conversation and to hear in noise has improved.

Surgical techniques in cochlear implants have advanced. Most patients can be implanted in two hours in an outpatient surgery center. All C.I. manufacturers now have devices that are Bluetooth-enabled. Most have t-coils, FM enabled devices, as well as mini-microphones and television adapters. Cochlear implant manufacturers will be rolling out their version of artificial intelligence equipped devices in the near future.

Adapting to a new aid or C.I. requires patience. It takes three months for someone to feel comfortable wearing an aid and six months of rehabilitation before one adjusts to an implant. Anyone receiving a new aid or implant has to visit an audiologist for multiple fittings, updates, and assessments. Be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t hear with new aids or implants. Keep a journal. I was pleased with my audiologist’s ability to change the settings on my aids when I would say things like, men’s voices sound too deep, or my female friends sound screechy.

As we meander through our hearing worlds, let us keep in mind the importance of treating our hearing loss with the best technology and methods possible. Let’s listen to our doctors and audiologists when they prescribe aids or implants and peripheral devices. Let us do the work necessary to get the best possible fittings and adjustments. Ultimately you will hear better and experience good brain health.

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Linda Bilodeau

I’ve grappled with hearing loss since 1978. Through it all, I’ve faced periods of denial, acceptance, curiosity, trust and hope. But more often than not, I’ve felt annoyed, angry and frightened. I’ve encountered despair, loneliness and envy. I’ve experienced panic attacks. I’ve met understanding people, kind souls who helped me a great deal and others who thought I had nothing short of an invisible plague. As a way of coming to terms with my hearing loss, I’ve decided to put my feelings about my disability down on paper. My hope is to better understand myself and perhaps you’ll find a little something in my meanderings that will help you, too.

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