Hearing and Cognition: How Are They Linked?
When you experience hearing loss, what do you really lose? The answer is more complicated than you might think! While your hearing is just one of your senses, it?s tied into the function of your other senses and even your cognitive abilities. Hearing is one of the key connections your brain has to the world around you, and it?s integral to making sense of your surroundings. Here?s how your hearing and cognition are linked and why it?s so important.
Hearing and Cognition: Why Your Brain Needs Your Ears
Hearing loss is about more than the impairment of a single sense. Your ears and your brain work together to help you communicate, understand the world around you, and alert you to danger. Your ears are sending information to your brain even while you?re sleeping! Millennia ago, this ability helped our human ancestors know when they could sleep peacefully or when a dangerous animal was approaching. Today, it might help you get up on time to an alarm clock or make you aware of a smoke detector going off.
With good hearing in both of your ears, you can detect where a sound is coming from or what is making a noise. You can make sense of lower volume sounds in noisy environments, like a conversation in a noisy restaurant or the music you listen to while riding on a train or an airplane.
To make this happen, your ears and brain have to work together. The process starts in your outer ear, where sound waves are directed to your middle ear. There the sound is converted into mechanical energy. Your inner ear takes that energy and turns it into an electrical signal, then sends it through the auditory nerve so your brain can make sense of it.
So what happens when you experience hearing loss? If any step is interrupted in the process of turning a sound wave into a signal your brain can understand, you?ll experience a form of hearing loss. There are three main types of hearing loss that take place in different parts of your ear, but each makes it more difficult for your brain to make sense of what?s going on around you.
Most of Your Hearing Is In Your Head
While you might think that hearing takes place in your ears, it actually has more to do with how your brain interprets sound. Hearing and cognition are tightly linked. In fact, only about 40 percent of your ability to hear is based in your ears – the remaining 60 percent takes place through central auditory processing in your brain. But your ears are necessary for your brain to receive auditory signals and make sense of them.
Just how much does your brain rely on hearing? Probably even more than you think! Your brain uses sound for auditory discrimination, auditory attention, and auditory memory.
Auditory discrimination helps you parse sounds to make sense of the difference. Not only can you tell whether someone says the word that, cat, or fat, you can also figure out who is speaking by the sound of their voice. This also helps you understand environmental sounds: for example, you can tell whether a ?humming? sound is a microwave or an air conditioner running.
Auditory attention, then, is the ability to focus on sounds. Think of it like using a magnifying glass to read small print. Your brain can follow a conversation even when it?s taking place in a loud environment like a restaurant. It also helps your brain understand concepts. Have you ever found something you?ve read confusing until someone explained it to you? Auditory attention can help ideas click inside your brain.
Now, consider just how much of your memory is based on things you?ve heard. You can probably recall things people have said to you, both important and not. Your auditory memory is full of sounds, from the melodies of your favorite songs to simple, everyday sounds. Without much effort you can conjure up the sound of a barking dog or a babbling brook.
Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline
Think of your brain as a muscle. Like any other muscle in your body, if you don?t use it, you lose it! When you experience hearing loss, the auditory processing centers of your brain go more and more unused as fewer signals make their way into them.
So what does that mean for you? With fewer auditory signals to process, you might begin to have difficulty with everyday auditory functions like remembering, deciphering, recognizing, and listening to sounds. And that isn?t just a nuisance: it can lead to a host of issues like feelings of isolation, depression, cognitive decline, and even contribute to dementia.
Those risks may sound frightening, but there is hope and help available. According to the 2020 report of the Lancet Commission, hearing loss was the largest of 12 modifiable risk factors for dementia – modifiable meaning risks that can be addressed or reduced. And while reversing hearing loss is a complicated subject, treating it isn?t. Hearing aids are an effective treatment that can help your ears make the most of their remaining functionality. They get the sound you?ve been missing through your auditory nerve and into your brain.
At The Hill Hear Better Clinic, our expert audiologists understand the links between hearing and cognition and stay up-to-date on the latest research. We put cutting-edge technology to use in our practice that can help us find the right solution for each patient, including the Cognivue cognitive testing system. This user-friendly, self-administered test helps us detect signs of cognitive decline early and determine how it?s related to your personal experience of hearing loss. We?ll help you find a hearing aid that?s just right for you and your lifestyle.
If you or a loved one experience hearing loss, don?t wait to do something about it: seek treatment now. Schedule a hearing evaluation at The Hill Hear Better Clinic today!