It is often many years from the time that people first notice signs of hearing loss before they take the steps to address it. However, research studies have revealed important reasons why people should address their hearing loss as early as possible.
The thought of wearing a hearing aid can cause many people to feel a little anxious – they worry about being perceived as old or having a disability. While it is common for people to think “I’m still too young for hearing aids”, our clients commonly reflect that they only wish they had done something sooner, as they actually feel younger and more confident as a result of wearing hearing aids.
Sensory deprivation – “Use it or lose it”
One study compared people who were fitted with hearing aids for both ears against others fitted with a single hearing aid. Looking at the data, scientists were able to conclude that a person’s ability to understand speech in an unaided ear deteriorated faster over time than their ability to understand speech in their aided ear.
For most people, this deterioration in the unaided ear was slowed if a hearing aid was later fitted. However, if the period without a hearing aid is long enough then other full advantages of hearing with both ears may never be attainable. That is, if we don’t use it, we may lose it.
This also provides the rationale for addressing hearing loss sooner and fitting hearing aids to both ears, if both are affected by hearing loss.
Neuroplasticity – “Use it or it will start doing something else”
Clients being fitted for the first time, who have endured more severe hearing losses, are more likely to say something along the lines of, “it sounds tinny”. Unfortunately, this has more to do with changes in the brain that occurred while it was deprived of sounds, rather than anything to do with the sound quality of the hearing aid itself.
Sounds are processed in the brain by neurons that are “wired” to process them at specific frequencies. Research has now shown that when those neurons are denied sound within those frequencies due to hearing loss, the brain will reprogram those neurons to do something else. In simple terms, this could be described as “use it, or it will start doing something else”.
This has led to three key improvements in the field of hearing care:
- Early intervention will produce the greatest long-term benefit and satisfaction for wearers of hearing aids.
- Aural rehabilitation is often necessary when introducing a hearing aid to someone who has lived with hearing loss for a long time. Exposure to tinny sounds is necessary to ensure the brain is retrained to become familiar with such frequencies once more.
- Clinicians need to manage clients’ expectations when they are being fitted with a hearing aid for the first time – particularly if they have lived with hearing loss for a long time.