The hearing brain

Why is a hearing wellness advocate writing about better brain function? Because we don’t just hear with our ears — we hear with our brains.

I recently discovered a study (“The Hearing Brain”) that clearly establishes “the (very close) link between hearing and the brain.” The research comes from a team that includes experts in audiology and neurology. Hearing, they say, is much more than processing sound. It actually “lights up” many areas of the brain, including activity for understanding, meaning, memory, imagination and experience.

Hearing loss and brain activity

Of course, the reverse is also true. As the study emphasizes, “hearing loss will change the brain” (emphasis mine). When someone experiences hearing loss, listening requires more concentration. The brain works harder to pick up sound and interpret the meaning. This increased concentration leaves the brain with less capacity for other activity (like memory, imagination, and understanding) while trying to “hear.”

Further, people with hearing loss often shy away from conversation in and around “noisy” places. So, perhaps they take fewer trips to music concerts or ball games. They might avoid walks in the park or meals with friends. And, while this might reduce the chance for embarrassment or frustration, it definitely reduces opportunities for the “hearing brain” to stay active.

A diagram showing the vicious circle of hearing loss and decreased brain activity.
Lorenzini Medical Foundation: The complex vicious circle that leads to hearing loss and cognitive decline
The research team warns, “Communication difficulties associated with hearing loss can encourage solitude, which is considered a risk factor for cognitive disorders.” In other words, failing to properly address hearing loss creates a “bi-directional vicious circle” that can lead to a decline in brain activity, or even “cognitive disorders” like dementia.

However, there is good news.

Address hearing loss early

Hearing loss doesn’t have to make you less social — or put you at risk for decreased brain function. In fact, advances in hearing aid technology and assistive listening devices make it easier and affordable to give your brain a boost with better hearing. Some examples are:

  • hearing aids
  • over-the-counter (OTC) “hearing devices”
  • cochlear implants (and other implantable devices)
  • assistive listening devices
  • phones and other mobile devices tailored for hearing wellness

A challenge accepted

Consider this startling statistic from the report:

“If, starting from today, we were to successfully delay the onset of cognitive decline by just one year, the global prevalence of dementia would diminish by over 10% by 2050.”

That makes me wonder. What if we delayed cognitive decline by two years. Or even ten?

We all get older. Most of us will experience some hearing loss, perhaps even some cognitive decline, as we do. But we don’t have to take it lying down. Recognize and address hearing loss early. Get a hearing aid. Read 5 tips for living better with hearing loss. Join the Akoio community.

I founded Akoio precisely to empower people with hearing loss to live their fullest lives. I know that better hearing can lead to better overall health. For me, part of that mission now includes “safeguarding” our brains.

Do you want to help encourage your organization to hear well, to have better brain function, to be more innovative, inclusive and accessible? Do you want to be part of a community living well with (or without) hearing loss? If you do, I encourage you to connect. Akoio is here to help.

As always, I invite your thoughts, comments, and questions!

Bill Schiffmiller is the CEO and Founder of Akoio, a company dedicated to providing products and services tailored to the needs of people with hearing loss. A life-long hearing aid user and hearing wellness advocate, Bill was the former Accessibility Advocate for Apple, Inc., and received his Master of Professional Studies degree in Design Management at Pratt Institute.