Understanding how we hear is essential. One of the most common misunderstandings is that we hear with our “ears”. In reality, the ears act as receivers and transmitters. The ears detect sounds in our environments and then process the sound(s) into a signal(s) that is is then transmitted to the neural system (the auditory nerve). The auditory nervous system carries the sound(s) to the Auditory Cortex area of the brain where it is given meaning. Yes, this is a simplified explanation. Much more is occurring as the signal is being transported, but this is, in essence, what is happening.
Think of hearing as a partnership between our ears and brains – a dance – that occurs 24 hours a day, even when we are sleeping. It is important that all of these pathways and connections are being continuously stimulated, not only in childhood, but also as adults. Our brains need as much sound detail as possible in order to give meaning to what we hear and is organized to function the best when receiving input from both ears – especially for clarity in challenging listening environments, like restaurants or large family gatherings.
When we hear a sound, our brain processes the sound so we can identify what we are hearing. The more complex the sound, the more information is needed. When the signal is compromised then the information the brain receives becomes degraded, resulting in the brain having to work much harder to process and give meaning to what is heard. The more resources that are used for understanding speech results in other brain tasks suffering (such as memory and comprehension).
This results in what is known as increased cognitive load. Recent research and studies have found that untreated hearing loss, due to cognitive load, overtime increases an individual’s risk for early onset of cognitive decline – including dementia and Alzheimer’s – compared to their hearing counterparts. Recent research in a variety of fields have found that the risk for developing serious cognitive issues significantly decline for hearing impaired individuals who do treat their hearing loss.
If we do not hear properly as children it affects how the auditory system develops, matures, and processes sound. Untreated hearing loss can lead to language and speech delays, difficulty with reading and math, social and emotional issues to name a few. When we are adults, untreated hearing loss can lead to the brain “forgetting” how to hear certain sounds due to reduced connections between the ear, neural system, and in the neural system itself responsible for transmitting the sound signal. The impact of untreated hearing loss is significant for both the patient and their loved ones.
Our goal at Southeast Michigan Ear, Nose, and Throat/Hearing Center is to work with our patients, review their options, and develop a plan to best treat their communication needs – ensuring our patients are involved in each step.