When we are called to put an image to words like ‘hearing’ or ‘listening’ we often default to some representation of an ear. It makes sense, it’s a very visible indicator of how we perceive our ability to absorb and understand sound. However, the ear is just the receiver of those sounds waves. Most of what we register as hearing, the entire process of it, happens in our brains. New studies are emerging that reveal the significance of identifying and intervening in hearing loss early in order to preserve the healthy functioning of our brains well into the future.
Hearing happens in the brain
We use the visual cues of ears, eyes, hands and mouths to indicate all of our sensory processing. When in fact, a majority of what we experience in the world is translated in our brain. What we see, touch, hear and taste happens in the external physical world, certainly. Then our fingers, eyes, ears and tongue act as receptors to these instances and absorb the physical stimulus into our awareness. But how we interpret that, the actual meaning of it, all takes place in the brain.
As it pertains directly to hearing, the auditory nerve is responsible for carrying sound information. It begins in the inner ear and makes its way directly to the brain.
Our adaptable brain
A recent study from the University of Colorado’s Department of Speech Language and Hearing Science focused on the subject of neuroplasticity, which is how the brain changes throughout the course of life. We used to think that the brain was formed in early childhood and became static in adulthood. However, we now know that the brain is highly adaptable throughout the span of a life and can reorganize itself as conditions change.
Of particular note, the study found that areas of the brain that house sensory processing such as vision or touch will take over those previously devoted to hearing if hearing loss is present. Referred to as cross-modal cortical reorganization, it is the brain’s way of compensating for the loss of other senses.
The implications of cross-modal cortical reorganization
Researchers are studying the implications of this brain behavior as they determine whether this rewiring of the brain might have a negative impact on cognitive processing. Particularly as we already know that age-related hearing loss is linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Mental confusion that coincides with hearing loss may have as much to do with this reorganization than with missing information or struggling to keep up in a challenging listening environment.
Interrupting the brain’s reorganization
Just as our bodies were made for movement, the systems of our bodies were meant to be used as designed. One way to interrupt this tendency of the brain to compensate for sensory loss is by committing to early and often screenings for hearing loss. Because the onset is often subtle and so slow going that it’s hard to pinpoint the moment it begins, hearing loss often goes undiagnosed for quite a long time. Each year that the brain is deprived of sound information to process, it is more likely to begin its rewiring process.
Instead, hearing loss that is detected early can be treated. And in fact, the earlier hearing loss intervention occurs, the more likely it is that current hearing levels can be maintained. By getting ahead of any hearing loss that has already occurred, the idea is to minimize the period of time in which sound information doesn’t travel along it’s intended pathways to the brain centers dedicated to its processing.
The modern hearing aid
Modern hearing aids are smarter, sleeker and more powerful than ever before. If the idea of wearing a visible hearing aid is incomprehensible, don’t fret. Many of today’s models are virtually undetectable and their programs and levels can be monitored through a smartphone. That means that any attention you’re paying to your hearing aid probably looks about as innocuous as checking for text messages or scrolling through social media.
Of course, the first step in treating hearing loss is setting up a hearing test with us at Exceptional Hearing Care. Our team of hearing health professionals accurately gauge the need for intervention and devise the best strategy ideally suited for each individual’s unique hearing needs. Contact us today to schedule a consultation!