The link between untreated hearing loss and an increased risk of cognitive decline has been extensively studied. But researchers have looked deeper and found that the brain’s ability to process and make sense of sound actually declines as their ability to hear decreases. This information demonstrates the importance of early intervention and the dangers of putting off treatment.
In the study, researchers tested the hearing and examined the brains of adults between the ages of 37 to 68. None of the participants were currently being treated for hearing loss, although some suspected they did have undiagnosed loss.
The researchers used electroencephalograms (ECGs) to examine their brains while they underwent hearing tests and tests using visual stimuli. They saw that when presented with images, the participants’ visual cortex and auditory cortex was fired up. This means that the part of the brain that previously processed audio signals was also processing visual signals. This is a phenomenon called cross-modal recruitment.
Anu Sharma, a professor in the University of Colorado’s Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences explains, “Because you rely more on this other sense, what happens is the auditory cortex then gets repurposed for visual processing.”
The brain has the ability to reorganize itself based on sensory inputs, learning and damage; this is called neuroplasticity. While more common in children with rapidly developing brains, it can continue into adulthood.
If your brain does not get exposed to as many sounds as it is used to, it will reallocate some of its auditory processing to other senses. This can make it harder for people to process sounds once they do finally seek treatment.
Neuroplasticity Can Be Reversed
Another study conducted by Sharma looked at adults with mild to moderate hearing loss. They were given a series of tests measuring cognition, executive function, visual and auditory working memory and depression. The participants were then fitted with top-of-the-line hearing aids, which they wore for six months.
After the six months, the tests were repeated. “We found that the cross-modal plasticity reversed, which was exciting,” Sharma says. “But even more exciting was that they improved in most of their cognitive scores. The only one they didn’t improve on was auditory working memory, but they improved significantly on … executive function, processing speed, visual working memory, all of that.”
While this research is still new, it paints a familiar picture. The sooner you seek treatment for your hearing loss, the more promising the results.
To learn more about treating your hearing loss or to schedule an appointment with a hearing expert, contact Hearing Zone today.