June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, a time to “go purple” and show support for the millions of people worldwide struggling with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. With that in mind, we’re asking: “Can protecting your hearing help protect your brain?”
How Your Hearing And Brain Are Connected
Before we explore how protecting your hearing can protect your brain, we need to understand how your hearing and your brain are connected. It may surprise you to learn that we hear with our brains, not with our ears.
We have an extremely complex hearing system, that can essentially be split into two parts: the peripheral hearing system and the central hearing system.
The three main parts that make up your ear are part of the peripheral hearing system:
- Outer Ear – Sound waves are first captured here. Your outer ear is comprised of the pinna (sometimes referenced as the auricle), eardrum and ear canal.
- Middle Ear – This is a small, air-filled space containing three tiny bones known collectively as the ossicles: the malleus, incus and stapes.
- Inner Ear – Your inner ear has organs designed for balance and hearing. It also contains your cochlea, which is the part of your inner ear responsible for hearing. The cochlea has thousands of tiny hair cells, and is a distinctive snail-like shape. It connects via the auditory nerve to your central hearing system, and is filled with fluid that plays an important role in hearing.
The auditory nerve is part of the central hearing system. Your central hearing system is a complex pathway to your brain stem, and then on to the auditory cortex of your brain.
When you’re hearing sounds in your environment, what you’re actually ‘hearing’ are sound waves, invisible vibrations that travel through the air. Most sounds have unique sound waves that are sent in every direction.
When a sound wave hits your ear, the pinna in both of your ears direct the sounds into your ear canals. The vibrations made by the sound wave cause your eardrum to vibrate. This vibration then causes the tiny bones, or ossicles, in your middle ear to move. This movement helps to transmit the sound waves into your cochlea. The thousands of hair cells in your cochlea convert the vibrations into electrical signals. These signals are transmitted to your brain through the auditory nerve. At this point, your brain will interpret the sound. You’ll identify what it is that you’re hearing, as well as the direction that the sound originated from. It’s truly a remarkable process.
Can Hearing Loss Affect Your Brain?
Hearing loss can have an impact on your brain, particularly if left untreated. Some of the ways that hearing loss impacts your brain are:
- Social isolation. Many with an untreated hearing loss withdraw from social environments or situations where they may struggle to hear. The resulting social isolation is linked to higher rates changes of cognitive decline due to a reduction in the amount and quality of brain stimulation.
- A study of MRI scans showed that individuals with hearing loss can experience a faster decline of brain volume. The findings outlined that individuals with hearing loss utilise their brain differently to those with normal hearing. This result in the brain cells that aren’t being used shrinking.
- Hearing loss can require repeated, at times intense, concentration to hear. This can put excess strain and stress on cognitive function. When this occurs over a prolonged period, it can be fatiguing may result in memory issues.
Protecting your hearing can help to protect your brain. At Sutton Hearing & Balance, we hope you will learn to value and protect your hearing, get started with our hearing loss prevention guide. If you believe that your hearing may have changed or you’re overdue for a hearing assessment, please come in and meet our hearing specialists today. Call us on (212) 786-5741 or click here to request an appointment online.