The Brain Needs to Hear

One of the best reasons to stay on top of your hearing health and seek treatment for any issues with it is the link between hearing and cognitive performance. It has become increasingly clear in recent years that “losing” one’s hearing is often intertwined with weakening of one’s mind.
Several scientific studies have found that hearing loss, especially when untreated, can speed up changes to the brain that come with aging. This includes it literally shrinking—and untreated hearing loss can make this worse.


A 2019 study published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia, based on research by a team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital that spanned eight years, found that hearing loss was associated with a higher risk for cognitive deterioration.


“Our findings show that hearing loss is associated with new onset of subjective cognitive concerns which may be indicative of early stage changes in cognition. These findings may help identify individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline,” stated lead author Sharon Curhan, MD.
These most recent findings come after previous studies also pointed to changes in the brain that were driven, at least in part, by hearing loss.
One such study in 2014, carried out by Johns Hopkins Medicine and the National Institute on Aging, used MRI images of participants in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging — which has been active since 1958 — for analysis. It found that early intervention to limit hearing loss could be key to preventing permanent changes to the brain’s structure that, once occurring, cannot be reversed.


It seems clear that, in addition to just making life easier by enhancing one’s hearing, treating hearing issues will very likely have positive long-term effects on overall quality of life—and long-term health.

Bluetooth Pushes the Boundaries of What Hearing Aids Can Be

Although it isn’t exactly new technology, Bluetooth’s role in the new world of hearing aids should still be appreciated. The last decade has seen an explosion in the ways devices can communicate with one another wirelessly — which opens up access to the Internet — and hearing aids are most definitely part of this high-tech parade.


By creating a very localized wireless network, Bluetooth makes possible the knitting together of any combination of devices. TVs can communicate with computers, smartphones with refrigerators, doorbells with audio systems — and hearing aids with all the above.


With the computing power that modern hearing aids entail, this creates a wealth of possibilities. Audio from entertainment platforms can be streamed directly to a hearing aid, which cuts down on any distractions from other sounds that might be in the area. Being able to focus on specific sound sources in such situations has always been a challenge for hearing aid users.


The same is true for telephone conversations, which have also traditionally been a challenge. Now smartphones, via Bluetooth, eliminate the need to hold a phone to one’s ear to hear. The sound is streamed directly into the hearing aid. There are even wireless microphones that can be used to create hands-free phone calls.


Finally, with dedicated apps installed on any linked device, a hearing aid can be controlled and adjusted without the need to take it out of one’s ear and fumble with small knobs or buttons. Everything can be done by hand with a touchscreen or mouse, making obsolete what was until recently one of the most annoying aspects of having a hearing aid.


What Bluetooth has unleashed has brought a new day for hearing aid users.

Diabetes: Always Worth Being Aware Of

November is National Diabetes Month. Right after Halloween — and in time for Thanksgiving — it’s a reminder that this diet-sensitive condition can be a significant force in creating chronic health issues and poor outcomes.

Unfortunately, along with the better-known litany of health ramifications stemming from diabetes — especially when untreated or when patients ignore the guidelines of health professionals — hearing health is also on the list of consequences.

In fact, studies have shown that diabetics are at a significantly higher risk of developing hearing loss — regardless of age or other risk factors. So, as in the case of heart disease, kidney failure, and tissue damage, retaining one’s hearing is yet another reason to take diabetes seriously.

This is due to the inner ear’s significant need for healthy blood flow to function. The immediate need for energy and nutrients — in the form of glucose, which diabetes inhibits — is one factor in making the condition detrimental to hearing. Ears use a significant amount of energy converting sound waves into the electrical impulses sent to the brain — the process that constitutes our hearing what is around us.

The lasting damage that diabetes can wreak on blood vessels is the secondary concern, since this increasingly depletes the ability of the ears to get the nutrients they need to stay healthy.

Along with getting treated and following medical advice regarding blood pressure and cholesterol, the best things to do to lessen the impact of diabetes is to eat as healthy a diet as possible (just cut out the junk food), cease using any tobacco products, and exercise. With regards to hearing, protecting ears from damage due to extreme loudness is even more important, since the ears’ ability to heal themselves is diminished by diabetes.

Seasonal Transition For Your Hearing

As the seasons change and the holidays approach, it’s transition time.

Depending on the circumstances that might mean dealing with hearing-related changes too.

For one thing, if you use hearing aids, then be prepared for a few environmental changes that will need to be adapted to.

Colder weather means windows that may have been open for months are now closed, which will change the acoustics in the house. Likewise, people — and pets — may be spending more time indoors, adding to the noise mix around you. This is especially acute during the holidays (don’t be shy about taking some breaks in a quiet room, since exiting a noisy environment will give your ears some recovery time).

Getting a forced-air heating system up and running again can mean raising a summer’s worth of dust into the air. This may cause some allergies to flare up, which can mean some fluid in the ears — and then corresponding hearing issues. Ditto the effects of cold and flu season, including ear infections. Time to break out the hats and earmuffs.

If there’s a snow blower in your future, then it’s time to break out the hearing protection too. A beanie will cover your ears and keep them warm, but it’s not going to really provide protection from the over 100 decibels of noise a snow blower can produce. At least invest in some good earplugs — though hearing protection earmuffs are even better.

There are different challenges for hearing aids in the cold weather too. Batteries might not last as long. Moisture in the form of sleet and snow — and perspiration from being bundled up — means you need to be extra diligent about drying hearing aids. Covers might help cut down on the problem directly, while a specialized dehumidifier that your hearing aids can spend the night in might be a good investment.

Diabetes and Hearing Loss

As anyone dealing with it can attest, managing diabetes is a life-altering fact. Unfortunately, a lesser-known — but increasingly clear — symptom of it is hearing loss.

Current research shows that diabetics are twice as likely to develop hearing issues. And, sad to say, the rate of diabetes has been rising steadily in recent years.

Diabetes creates an imbalance in the bloodstream that causes glucose, a sugar that is vital to the body’s cells, to buildup in the blood instead of being distributed throughout the body. And the intricate mechanism of the human hearing system is especially dependent on good circulation to function.

The current working theory is that elevated levels of glucose eventually damage the blood vessels of the inner ear. These are extremely small, yet vital to constantly rejuvenating the aural apparatus.

This is especially true for the stereocilia, the hairs within the ear that turn sound waves into the electrical signals sent to the brain. Unlike exterior hair, the stereocilia do not regenerate. Any damage to them is permanent and new ones will not grow to replace the dead. They’re not being properly nourished is a clear cause for hearing loss and, unfortunately, diabetes increases the likelihood of this happening.

Along with properly treating diabetes as prescribed by a doctor, other steps that can be taken in dealing with diabetes-related hearing loss is to not allow other risk factors to come into play.

Exposure to loud sound is one such factor. Noise damage to the inner ear causes further degradation that poor blood circulation will exacerbate. Encouraging good circulation through exercise will ensure the ears are getting as much nourishment as possible. Related to this is maintaining a healthy weight, since excess weight curtails the efficiency of the circulatory system.

Autumn Traditions … And Their Risks

For many, autumn is the most exquisite time of the year. The foliage, football, getting the sweaters back out, a sense of things slowing down after the busy summer. And then there’s the wide variety of pumpkin-spiced foodstuffs (well, maybe pumpkin spice coffee isn’t too high on that many lists).

But some of those traditions can come at a cost to one’s hearing.

Take football, for instance. A trip to the alma mater for a game — much less a road trip to see an NFL game — can actually mean exposure to excessive noise. It’s cute when they set up a decibel meter in the stands so TV analysts can marvel at the crowd getting up above 100 decibels (sometimes well above).

Only problem is that this means the crowd is being exposed to sound over 100 decibels — which is far above the 70 that can cause ear damage. This is especially problematic for children, since their narrower ear canals enhance the effects of excessive noise.

Another ritual of the season is cleaning up the yard and prepping it for winter. This can include getting the leaf blower, chainsaw, or some other small engine-driven device out of the garage. That too means exposure to sound over 100 decibels.

Deer, geese, or any other kind of hunting with rifle or shotgun is obviously problematic too — with noise upwards of 130 decibels.

The only real solution to any seasonal activity that includes noise exposure is to use the best ear protection possible. Protective earmuffs are the most effective. But even inexpensive foam earplugs will help some and decrease exposure, while the best brands can cut 30 decibels off of exposure levels.

Take Care of the Ears This Summer

Summer is full of fun and good times. But some of the fun requires some caution when it comes to your hearing health.

One of the most obvious is 4th of July fireworks. As is reported on every year, visits to emergency rooms spike over the holiday due to sometimes gruesome fireworks-related injuries. Less dramatic, but perhaps even more widespread, is damage done to ears during this holiday.

This isn’t too complicated. Being too close to extremely loud noises can cause temporary or permanent damage to eardrums and other parts of the ear, especially in the case of small children (whose narrower ear canals actually make things worse).

And fireworks are extremely loud. Any sound over 120 decibels can damage ears. Fireworks come in at up to 175 decibels. So, keep your distance and use ear protection, including for any children you’re responsible for.

Same goes if any car racing events are on the schedule.

The other main culprit instigating ear issues in the summer is moisture.

Swimming (and sweating) can make the walls of the ear canal more susceptible to infection — commonly referred to as swimmer’s ear. This is not only because pools, lakes, rivers, and the ocean are all chock full of microbes that might take up residence in your ear but also because efforts to keep them dry — which is what ultimately needs to happen — might actually make infection more likely.

Sticking your finger in your ear — or using a towel or especially a cotton swab — can actually scrape the skin and give microbes a better environment to gain a foothold in your ear (talk about mixed metaphors).

The trick is to dry your ears out without the use of friction. Gravity actually works pretty well (tilting your head to one side while pulling down on your earlobe is pretty efficient). A hair dryer on low-heat setting can work wonders. There are also over-the-counter drops that can do the trick.

Enjoy the summer — but take care of your ears.

Waking up with Rare Hearing Loss

When a woman wakes up one morning and can’t hear the voices of men — well, the jokes kind of write themselves. Wouldn’t it be great to have that switch?

But for a Chinese woman in Xiamen that this happened to recently, it was a case of reverse-sloping hearing loss — and no doubt did not feel like a joke. Nor for anyone who comes down with this rare condition.

Most hearing loss starts at the high end of the sound spectrum. That’s how it works for the vast majority of people and there is a common graph — the ski slope hearing loss curve — that is produced when a hearing test is charted.

Reverse-sloping hearing loss has the opposite curve.

After her ears started ringing (tinnitus) and she vomited the night before, the woman woke up and realized that she had experienced a form of sudden hearing loss. She could no longer hear her boyfriend when he spoke to her. A trip to the emergency room — and luckily a female doctor — quickly confirmed that her hearing was gone in the part of the spectrum where most male voices reside (she couldn’t hear the man sharing her hospital room either).

The condition is very rare — only 3,000 cases are reported annually in the United States — and can be dangerous, since automobile engines and other machinery produce sound in the same part of the sound range.

Eventually, it was determined that stress was the likely cause, aggravated by working late and not getting enough sleep. It should be noted that the role stress can play in hearing issues is often not fully realized.

Well, That’s an Odd Sound I’m Hearing

With May being Better Speech and Hearing month, it is a great opportunity to take note of your hearing health and any unusual sounds you may experience.

There are a wide variety of noises from within the ear that can suddenly “appear” and cause concern — even bafflement. If they persist for an extended period of time — especially ringing, which might be tinnitus — then seek professional attention. But some noises are basically the auditory equivalent of sneezing or coughing.

If a crackling sound develops in one of your ears, then it might have to do with your Eustachian tube. This is a passage between the back of your nose and the inner ear that is crucial in maintaining equalized pressure in your ears. It actually opens whenever you blow your nose, yawn, or swallow — so it stays pretty busy. Without this, your eardrum might wear out due to dealing with pressure changes constantly.

But if it gets clogged up, usually due to an allergy or cold, then it gets kind of sticky and doesn’t work quite as efficiently. That’s what makes that sound — which can be rather annoying. The condition will usually dissipate on its own but nasal sprays can also be an effective treatment if it’s really annoying you.

Another rather impressive piece of the anatomy is the tiny tensor tympani muscle. It reacts to sudden loud noises and actually tamps down their impact on the rest of the ear. It also squelches the volume on your chewing and the sound of your own voice. But sometimes the muscle can spasm and cause a low rumble. There are even some people who can control this intentionally.

Finally, wax buildup in the ears can cause a number of sounds, including ringing and buzzing. Sometimes there’s so much in there that it comes into contact with the eardrum (throwing off its calibration). But if you think you have earwax causing a problem that deep in your ear, don’t try to dig it out. Have a medical professional handle it in order to avoid damaging your eardrum.

Any changes in your hearing should be evaluated by a hearing professional. Contact us today for a comprehensive hearing evaluation.

 

The Bottom Line Cost of Untreated Hearing Loss

Hearing loss that goes untreated is not just a quality-of-life issue. It can be a financial one too.

The Better Hearing Institute (BHI) conducted a survey that found that individuals with more minor hearing issues that they did not rectify saw a decrease in income. And people with more significant hearing issues that weren’t treated were unemployed at twice the rate as people without hearing issues.

It’s hard to imagine any job that doesn’t demand communication skills. And poor hearing will obviously cause issues in most cases.

With the trend of hearing issues cropping up earlier in life for many people, this is an issue that will become more significant in human resource departments and for individual workers. In fact, most of the 40 million Americans who have hearing issues are still working. Estimates are that 10 percent of the workforce has some problem with their hearing.

In addition, the trend is also for older people to stay in the workforce at higher rates than just a few decades ago.

The BHI study also showed that effective treatment curtailed the economic impact of hearing loss. Workers with mild hearing loss who got hearing aids saw the downward effect on their incomes cut by 90 to 100 percent. A reduction of 65–77 percent was found for those with severe to moderate hearing loss.

These trends — along with the fact that some jobs expose workers to extreme noise environments — will mean that recognizing and treating hearing loss will probably become a more normalized part of the work environment. It is in the interest of both employers and employees to proactively deal with this issue.