A crash course on ear anatomy and hearing
While there are many nuances to hearing loss and what causes it, the anatomy of our ears and how they facilitate hearing is mostly the same for all humans.
Our outer ear (the part you can see with your eyes), acts as a funnel to capture external sounds and push them through to the middle ear. From there, the sound is translated into vibrations via the eardrum. Those vibrations then travel through to the inner ear, where they are converted to electrical signals and passed to the brain for processing. This process relies heavily on each unique part of your ear to work effectively, and hearing loss can occur when even one element encounters an issue.
Hearing loss is diagnosed when your ability to hear out of one or both ears is compromised, either temporarily or permanently. Temporary hearing loss is usually caused by a physical blockage (e.g., earwax), fluid buildup, or inflammation of the outer or middle ear, so it will most likely resolve with minor intervention (or no intervention at all).
Permanent hearing loss, alternatively, can happen for a lot of different reasons, like aging, damage from consistent exposure to loud noise, or some illnesses, and is most common in older adults.
Since hearing loss happens gradually, it can be hard to identify when your hearing loss reaches moderate or severe stages — which is often referred to as hearing impairment — or even when you have hearing loss at all, which shows just how important regular hearing tests can be.
Regular hearing tests are also crucial because of how many different bodily functions are connected to our ability to hear, especially within the brain.
Hearing loss and cognitive decline
Hearing is a major component in our ability to understand the world around us and make decisions, which is why hearing loss is often linked to cognitive disorders over time, especially dementia.
When we experience hearing loss, the sound signals our nerves send to the brain for processing are not as clear, so the brain has to work harder to process and make sense of the information it receives — this is known as “cognitive load.”
With the brain working harder in this way, there’s not as much mental space for other key processes, so it can become much harder to focus on other things, leading to a decline in your brain’s ability to do those things in the long term.
Secondarily, hearing loss can sometimes cause folks to isolate themselves from their friends, family, and the world around them, which can put them at a higher risk of dementia.
Think about it this way: in order to get better at something or keep our skills sharp, we need to practice those skills, and, in the same vein, when our brains aren’t working as much to engage with others or process the environment around us, its ability to do so declines over time, as well.
Hearing loss and mental health
Another lesser-known connection between hearing loss and our brains is hearing loss’s impact on mental health in general. Recent research has linked hearing loss to both anxiety and depression — two mental health disorders that have grown in prevalence in the past few decades.
While anyone can experience hearing loss or mental health conditions independently from each other, those with hearing loss are at a higher risk of developing both depression and anxiety because of how hearing loss impacts normal life and how we live day-to-day.
For example, if you have hearing loss, you may find yourself worrying about your hearing loss throughout the day, which can heighten anxiety in your brain. You may be worried about the severity of your hearing loss or inability to understand someone when conversing in a loud space. These are all very valid concerns but can definitely create some anxiety or make preexisting anxiety disorders worse.
Those with hearing loss may also develop depression as a result of losing their normal hearing abilities or begin to isolate themselves from friends and family, which can lead to feelings of loneliness or not feeling supported.
Treatment options for hearing-related mental & cognitive disorders
If you think you may be experiencing a mental health or cognitive disorder as a result of untreated hearing loss, the first step should be to get in touch with a hearing care provider (like the team at Colorado Ear Care) and schedule a hearing evaluation.
An audiologist will be able to test your hearing abilities, learn more about your general health concerns, and work with you on a treatment plan to address your hearing loss, which may include hearing aids or putting you in touch with a neurologist for parallel treatment.
It’s been shown that the use of hearing aids can both lessen the prevalence of depression among those with hearing loss and even improve depressive symptoms in just a few months of wear.
Keep your mind healthy by keeping your hearing healthy
Treating your hearing loss — and caring for your hearing health in general — are just two ways you can care for your long-term mental and cognitive health. So, why wait to take control of your hearing care?
Contact the Colorado Ear Care team to schedule your hearing test and meet with one of our expert audiologists.