Auditory deprivation - Use it or lose it?
It’s possible that people with untreated hearing loss can lose the ability to make sense of speech sound.
In normal hearing, the brains auditory cortex and the hearing nerves are constantly stimulated. The ear picks up vibrations in the air which are turned into electrical signals. These are transmitted along the auditory nerves to the brain. The brain takes these signals and turns them into the sounds that we recognise as speech.
It is what helps us to distinguish speech from other noise, and to recognise familiar sounds.
If someone loses their hearing, and doesn’t get treatment, this can cause auditory deprivation. The hearing nerves and cells in the brain cannot detect any sound, so they stop being active.
As anyone who exercises regularly knows, if you stop exercising for a period of time, your body will get used to it very quickly. You won’t feel any adverse effects. But if you decide to start exercising again, you may struggle to quickly reach the same level of fitness quickly. Your muscles will protest because, whilst you were resting, they have become weaker.
Your brain is no different. If an area of the brain, such as the auditory cortex, stops being used, the brain will adapt by diverting energy to parts that are being used. The nerve cells which carry the signals from the ear to the brain will also weaken. Over time, it’s possible that they may stop working altogether. If this is the case, even if sound is then amplified, the brain will be unable to make sense of it. Speech sounds and conversation will just sound like noise.
There is plenty of evidence to back up this theory. A study took place involving army veterans with noise induced hearing loss in both ears. Despite both ears being affected, they were only fitted with one hearing aid. Testing their hearing some years later, researchers found that although their hearing levels hadn’t changed, participants struggled to understand amplified speech in the ear that had been unaided. They had no difficulty understanding speech sound in the ear that had worn the hearing aid.
This shows how the weakening of nerve pathways and the auditory cortex can change our perception of sound. When these areas are not used, they are unable to process the electrical signals from the ear into recognisable speech.
If you need two hearing aids, saving money by just getting one can have a serious impact on your hearing. Even if your hearing loss is only mild right now, it can worsen with age. You may find that if you get a second hearing aid later on, it’s difficult to make sense of the amplified sound.
The study also highlights the importance of having hearing aids that are properly programmed. Poorly fitted hearing aids can still lead to auditory deprivation. If you cannot hear certain frequencies and your hearing aids are not meeting those needs, then your brain is being deprived of that sound. Over time it will stop recognising that sound, creating problems with your sound perception. This is why it is so essential to only get hearing aids from properly qualified audiologists.
Early treatment for hearing loss is essential to prevent the effects of auditory deprivation. Many people who delay getting hearing aids find them difficult to get used to. The increased noise level can be too much if you’ve got used to it being quiet. But the nerves and brain cells also need to get used to being used again. Just like getting your body fitter and stronger, it can take some time.
If you’re finding your hearing aids difficult to get used to, don’t panic. You may also struggle to understand speech even though everything is louder. Try wearing your hearing aids for an hour or so each day and increase the time gradually.
Your audiologist could give your hearing aids a ‘quiet’ setting to make it more comfortable in noisy environments. Some hearing aid models have programs which increase the volume gradually, to give you time to get used to them.
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You may be able to hear people but not understand everything they are saying, making you feel out of sync with the conversation. You might get the wrong end of the stick in conversations and get frustrated with people. If the subject changes without