Five points about the neuroscience of hearing: Dr Suzanne Purdy

A healthy brain is co-dependent with healthy hearing. The ear and brain are interconnected through neural pathways so, unfortunately, the loss of hair cells as you age will affect both your hearing and brain function.

Posted Wednesday July 26, 2023

With hearing, sound is present for milliseconds then vanishes, it’s not recorded like written language, hence those with hearing loss are at risk of constantly missing out.

  1. We all know high frequencies become harder to hear as we age and lose our hair cell function. If you’d like to understand how this affects hearing, ask someone to cover their mouth as they talk to you. The whole whanau should try this as it may help everyone understand the differing hearing abilities at different ages and reduce the stigma of aging!
  2. Many people over 60 can often have “normal” hearing measured on a traditional audiogram, but complain of hearing issues in noisy environments where they may be missing the soft consonants of speech. This may be indicating that there is hearing loss beyond the standard test frequencies and “neural” hearing loss may already be at play. Hearing in noise requires significantly more high-level brain function, so if you do poorly in these environments it could be sign that your neural ability may have become less efficient.
  3. When you first start wearing hearing aids they “retrain” the brain to hear, but this only works if worn regularly. You will feel tired or “different” while getting used to the aids and your brain rewires to make use of its improved hearing! Leading research is now suggesting that to get the true benefits of amplification wearers should be aiming at 6 to 8 hours per day of wear time.
  4. Poor balance is often a symptom of impaired hearing! If you have poor balance, observe whether there are any changes after you start wearing hearing aids. If not, tell your audiologist as you may benefit from a referral to physiotherapy or a balance-disorder clinic.
  5. Hearing is part of a multi-sensory system, so if hearing loss is untreated it increases the risk of other sensory disabilities which all exacerbate the risk for dementia. A recent UK study found those fitted with hearing aids had lower depression scores due to connecting with others again.