The Often Unknown Effects of Hearing Loss

It is common knowledge that hearing loss can cause a reduction in speech understanding. However, besides reduced speech there are many more effects untreated hearing loss can have on individuals.

In last month’s article, I wrote about the isolating effect hearing loss can have, and focussed on how to improve the speech clarity for watching movies and television shows. Today I want to look at some other areas that can be affected by untreated or inadequately treated hearing loss.

Quite often the terms “Hear” and “Understand” are used interchangeably even though they are vastly different. “Hearing” is a physical process that takes place in the “Organ of Corti” in the inner ear. In this process, soundwaves are transformed into electrical signals which are then sent to the brain. “Understanding” is the interpretation of the electrical signals which reach the brain.

If the hearing is reduced the result is that not all information is transferred into electrical signals and the brain has insufficient ‘input’ from the ears. This leads to a significantly increased workload for the brain. The brain has a desire to fully understand all parts of a conversation. When it realises the ears only deliver some parts the brain will ramp up concentration and recruit other sources of information to make up for the little hearing. This includes lip-reading, guessing, context and ‘re-playing’ parts of a conversation among other factors. This all needs to happen within milliseconds and can get very exhausting.

The results can be diverse – today I would like to focus on four of the most crucial effects.

Reduced productivity and increased tiredness

As the brain has to increase its processing power to keep on top of conversation it only has limited capacity left to actually engage and contribute to a conversation. People with untreated or inadequately treated hearing loss often feel tired and exhausted in group-conversations or important meetings as the listening effort increases. My clients regular report improved productivity after a successful hearing instrument fitting. 

Reduced social interest

The increased effort of understanding can quickly lead to a person withdrawing from the conversation and ‘day-dreaming’ at the dinner-table while family and friends keep chatting. In more and more cases we see people choosing not to attend birthday parties or other social events as they feel it is too difficult to engage. This can also contribute to other physical and mental conditions. Today we know for a fact that social interaction is linked to general health and wellbeing.

Potentially increased risk of cognitive decline

Some current studies are exploring potential links between reduced hearing and accelerated cognitive decline. Research has indicated that the lack of information provided to the brain and reduced social interaction of people with hearing loss may contribute to the development of cognitive decline. 

Irreversible damage to the auditory processing

As per the old saying “Use it or Lose it” the reduced auditory stimulation can have significant effects. If hearing loss does not get treated in a timely manner it can cause irreversible damage to the auditory process which limits the potential for future improvement. 

Regular hearing checks above the age of 50 are highly recommended to combat those effects early on. This avoids hearing problems compounding and becoming more severe over time.