The ability to stay socially connected with family and friends supports better overall personal happiness and a richer quality of life. Not only do hearing aids help people stay connected to the world and hear every day sounds, but most importantly because they help the wearer to comprehend speech, therefore they help them communicate more easily and maintain social connections.
Untreated hearing loss has been shown to have considerable and far-reaching negative social, psychological, cognitive (mental/intellectual), and health effects in people of all ages. Youngsters with even a mild or moderate untreated hearing loss have greater difficulty learning, developing speech, and building the important interpersonal skills necessary to foster self-esteem and succeed in school and life. Hearing loss in adults used to be viewed by some as an inconsequential part of aging, however research findings have changed that perspective drastically. Studies show substantial negative consequences (including increased risk of dementia, falls, hospitalizations, and diminished overall physical and mental health) tied to untreated hearing loss.
Although the brains of aging adults shrink naturally with age, research indicates the brain tissue rate of loss appears to be fast-tracked in adults with hearing deficits, especially notable in the areas of the brain that process information from sound and speech. These areas of the brain not only have ties to memory and sensory integration, but they are also involved in the early stages of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.
When a person can’t hear clearly and easily, the increased mental efforts they must use to try to decipher distorted/incomplete messages received by the brain, is taxing. When communication is more difficult and frustrating for all affected parties, the person with untreated hearing loss eventually becomes more isolated and withdrawn, which is also known to increase their risk factors for cognitive decline.
Hearing aids magnify sound vibrations entering the ear. Surviving hair cells detect the larger vibrations and convert them into neural signals that are passed along to the brain. The greater the damage to a person’s hair cells, the more severe the hearing loss, and the greater the hearing aid amplification needed to make up the difference. However, there are practical limits to the amount of amplification a hearing aid can provide. In addition, if the inner ear is too damaged, even large vibrations will not be converted into neural signals. In this situation, a hearing aid would be ineffective.
When indicated, hearing aids are used as treatment to reintroduce missing sound stimuli to the brain. Optimal success for understanding/interpreting sound signals can depend on the brain’s ability to “rewire” itself over time (a process called neuroplasticity.) According to expert Dr. Frank Lim, M.D., Ph.D, (who has conducted numerous National Institute of Health-sponsored studies on brain/hearing loss interactions) “If you want to address hearing loss well, you want to do it sooner rather than later.” Research has shown that the sooner treatment begins, the easier and more likely it is that the brain can be retrained to allow better communications.