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Do you have hearing loss? You may and not even know it. Hearing loss can develop in small increments over many years- even decades. Its impressive how adaptive the brain is and as hearing is lost in subtle tones the brain adjusts, normalizing this loss. You may find you struggle to hear just certain speakers or must turn up the TV a bit more. For this reason hearing loss is often hard to diagnose. On average hearing people wait 10 years to take steps to treat hearing loss. Meanwhile Among adults aged 70 and older with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than one in three (30 percent) has ever used them. This however is a dangerous practice.

Hearing aids are programed to amplify the sounds and tones you struggle with based on your hearing exam. When you go years without hearing those sounds it can cause what is known as sensory deprivation. Sensory deprivation occurs when your brain struggles to receive lost senses and in terms of hearing loss it can cause portions of the auditory cortex in the brain to shrink – also known as atrophy from lack of use. 

Understanding auditory deprivation?

Auditory deprivation occurs when your brain is deprived of sound, such as from untreated hearing loss. Slowly and subtly when hearing loss goes ignored undiagnosed or untreated, your brain loses the ability to identify and process sound. Portions of the brain which are usually responsible for hearing get “reassigned” to other tasks or in many cases, shrink or atrophy. While many mistake brain atrophy as something which only occurs in those with severe hearing loss, in truth it can affect anyone with hearing loss- even slight and mild cases. 

“Auditory deprivation is when the brain has difficulty understanding and processing information due to the lack of stimulation,” explains audiologist Jenilee P. Pulido, AuD, of HearCare Audiology Center in Sarasota, Fla.

Brain atrophy from untreated hearing loss

While hearing starts in the ears, comprehension must occur in the brain. Sound is delivered to your brain by one way only – tiny hair-like cells within the cochlea -the fluid filled, snail shaped organ within the inner ear. Stereocilia transform audio waves into electrical impulses through the auditory nerve to the brain. This is where the brain processes sound and speech.

Auditory deprivation occurs all too quickly when fewer sounds make their way to the brain and this effects how it operates. 

Use it or lose it: Hearing loss and brain function

Many audiologists describe the idea of “Use it or lose it” when referred to hearing.

“The longer you wait to seek treatment, the [more the] brain has trouble understanding and processing information,” explains Pulido, who is a fellow with the American Academy of Audiology. 

While you may be able to hear the sounds your brain over time can struggle to understand the words and piece together their meaning. This is often mistaken as cognitive decline when in truth it is hearing loss. However, over time researchers have found that the risk of cognitive decline increases as hearing loss goes untreated. In fact some studies find that hearing loss doubles the risk of hearing loss in mild cases and rises exponentially as the severity of hearing loss increases.

Is auditory deprivation permanent?

It is unclear the brain’s ability to correct for sensory deprivation however, Overall, though, the “brain is very [flexible] and it can make a lot of changes—once it’s being stimulated, new connections can form so that it can understand more information,” Pulido states.

The good news is that a small study discovered that wearing hearing aids “may reverse compensatory changes in cortical resource allocation”. In plain speech this is hopeful that, negative changes in your brain may improve with consistent hearing aid use. 

Hearing aid adjustment may take a while

Hearing aids are amazing devices, but they take some time to get used to. Unlike glasses which make a difference the moment they are put on- the brain must relearn to hear sounds that haven’t been heard in year.

“The most common type of hearing loss is slow and gradual—so you get used to it, and think it’s normal to hear like that,” Pulido explains. Your brain gets used to it, and when you start using hearing aids it can take time to get used to even the sound of your own voice which may seem incredibly loud. The good news is that we are here to help. It’s never too late to try hearing aids. Contact us today to schedule a hearing exam and start addressing hearing loss now.

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