If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t spent much time mulling over the idea of “auditory deprivation.” While it is related to hearing loss, it’s not the first thing we think of when it comes to hearing loss. It can take years for it to cause problems, or even for us to notice it!
“Deprivation” means we’re taking something away. In the case of auditory deprivation, we’re taking away audio… but from what?—From our brain.
The Auditory Cortex and Auditory Deprivation
A certain area of our brains is designated for processing sound. It’s called the “auditory cortex,” and it sits in the lower part of the brain, behind the ears, right in the center. For human beings, the sound is inextricably linked with speech. We have evolved to communicate with one another, and our auditory cortex is a specialized instrument for recognizing speech, automatically interpreting it as language, and shunting it directly to our short-term memory, which sits directly adjacent to the auditory cortex.
The word deprivation is fitting because our brain expects to encounter lots of sound from our ears. Even when we’re not really paying attention, our brain is hard at work interpreting information from our ears. It picks up cues that help orient us in space and monitors the environment for something that should get our attention. When we take that information away from our brain, we are certainly depriving it.
Hearing Loss and Neuroplasticity
For most of us, most of the time, hearing loss sets in very slowly. We don’t notice that we’re hearing less and less. Usually, the first time we notice hearing loss is when another person tells us we have it. On average, from the time a person first notices hearing loss, it takes them seven years to get a hearing test and start the process of getting a set of hearing aids.
That’s unfortunate because auditory deprivation can have some pretty unsettling effects on the brain. Even mild hearing loss, when left untreated, will cause changes in the brain. This is because of a process called “neuroplasticity.”
When one area of the brain isn’t getting used, our brilliant brains reallocate precious resources to other areas. The auditory cortex begins to literally collapse. It’s not that the brain cells die, but the grey matter between them will dissipate, shrinking the structure. While the brain cells may still be there, they can’t work effectively when they’re so collapsed.
There is some evidence that, as the auditory cortex shrinks, the visual cortex is enlarged. This allows our brains to rely more on information from our eyes than our ears. While this may be a good thing for young people being raised in deaf culture, it may not be so good for those of us experiencing age-related hearing loss. Untreated hearing loss has been linked to cognitive decline and dementia, with the risk increasing by the degree of hearing loss:
- Mild hearing loss – 2x risk of dementia
- Moderate hearing loss – 3x risk of dementia
- Severe hearing loss – 5x risk of dementia
Setting the increased risk of Alzheimer’s aside, there is a more immediate reason that auditory deprivation is something you’ll want to avoid: It will take away your ability to understand speech, even when you can hear it clearly!
Get Hearing Aids Sooner, Not Later!
Many people wish to put off getting hearing aids until their hearing becomes “really bad.” While we understand that hearing aids are a major expense that have a non-zero impact on our daily habits, this thinking unfortunately doesn’t hold up when we look at the changes that occur while someone is living with untreated hearing loss.
It does seem that the auditory cortex can be rehabilitated, but this takes effort. Training classes are available that can help us learn to listen again. Over time, we can reap the benefits that hearing aids provide.
But consider this: What will you have been missing out on during those years of auditory deprivation? It’s not just changes in the brain that concerns us, but changes in lifestyle. How many conversations will you miss out on? How many gatherings with friends and family will you pass up or be unable to enjoy?
The best way to deal with a new hearing loss is to start wearing hearing aids as soon as they’re recommended by a hearing care professional. Hearing aids prevent the interruption of “life as we know it,” letting us make the most of our time today and every day.