Benefits of Amplification

Healthy New Year Resolutions: A look at brain health and its relationship to hearing

By: Kate Hopkins M.A. F-AAA, Clinical Audiologist

The turning of the calendar to a new year can result in a moment to reflect where we have been, and where we want to be in the future. There is a growing body of evidence that indicates there is a strong link between sensory input and a healthy brain. This makes logical sense to many people. It is the old ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy. So as you consider your health goals for the new year, place hearing on your list.


I first read about the link between brain health and hearing back in 2011 when a study conducted at Johns Hopkins University by Dr. Frank Lin found that cognitive decline occurred at a much higher rate in people with untreated hearing loss compared to those individuals who wore amplification on a consistent basis. (Johns Hopkins Medicine-‘Hearing Loss and Dementia Linked in Study, 2-14-11) Since that time the amount of knowledge and evidence supporting that conclusion has been confirmed in many studies. Most recently, I reviewed a research report by The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease titled, ‘The Association Between Hearing Impairment, Vision Impairment and Serious Cognitive Impairment: Findings from a population-based study of 5.4 Million Older Adults. This study was published on May 2, 2022. The conclusion of the analysis from this study of 5.4 million adults aged 65 and older was as follows: “hearing and vision impairment are both independently associated with cognitive impairment. However, dual sensory impairment is associated with substantially higher odds of cognitive impairment, even after controlling for sociodemographic characteristics. Practitioners working with older adults may consider treatment for sensory impairments and cognitive impairment concurrently.” To summarize that statement, both vision impairment and hearing loss, when untreated, are related to cognitive decline. When hearing and vision problems exist together in an individual, the risk of cognitive decline is even higher. The reasons behind this need to be further researched, but it is commonly accepted that the brain needs consistent and regular input from your sensory organs (ears, eyes, touch etc) in order to function properly. If your response to this news is to schedule an appointment to get your ears and eyes checked, you are on the right track. 

There is Hope! 

Fortunately, access to help is easier than you think. Recently the FDA has expanded access to OTC hearing aids. These amplifiers are suitable for people with perceived mild to moderate hearing loss and can be purchased online or in stores. It seems that each week there is a new company selling amplifiers directly to consumers so there is some research required to ensure that you are making a wise purchase. That said, the barriers to actually treating your hearing loss (affordability being one of the biggest) are coming down. A ‘prescription hearing aid’ is provided by an audiologist and differs from an OTC amplifier in strength, precision of fit and customization. Most audiologists applaud the introduction of OTC devices since hearing loss is a chronically ignored health issue. The introduction of OTC aids widens accessibility and serves for many people as an introduction to addressing their communication problems. 

What to Do?

Now let’s talk about what you can expect from treating your hearing loss, whether you choose a prescription custom instrument or an over-the-counter device, the experience of amplification has some universal commonalities. The first few weeks of wearing hearing aids can often be equal parts delight and discomfort. Think of it like having lived in a dimly lit room for a long time and suddenly someone throws open the blinds on a bright, sunny day. It will be startling and maybe even a little uncomfortable. In time, you will adjust to these changes; but in order to do so, you will have to wear your hearing aids consistently. Consistent use of hearing instruments is the only way to ‘reconnect’ the ears to the part of the brain responsible for listening. The ears hear, but the brain decodes that sound into meaningful things-like speech. Without consistent use of your hearing aids, these connections related to speech understanding weaken or disappear. The result is cognitive decline. Begin by wearing your hearing aids or OTC amplifier at least 4 hours per day, longer if possible. Gradually work up to wearing them for the majority of your waking hours. This may take up to a month. Incorporate your hearing aids into part of your dressing routine. Pants on- Shirt on- Ears on! Remember to remove them for bathing and bedtime. You will take particular notice of certain sounds. Common, everyday sounds like running water (especially a flushing toilet), crackling paper, turn signal clicks and restaurant sounds can seem extremely loud. Be patient in the initial weeks. This state of hyper-awareness will fade and you will begin to focus your attention on pleasant sounds like birdsong and grandchildren. With time, you will feel gratitude for your hearing aids because they gave you back things that you had been missing. Hearing aids will not restore normal hearing. They are not like a pill that “fixes” the problem. They are prosthetic devices. They are your prosthetic ears. Imagine if you had a prosthetic leg. If you wanted to become adept at walking, you would use your leg everyday. This practice is the same for your ears. Your hearing aids are like physical therapy for your brain. So take a deep breath, be patient and put your ears on. It won’t feel like work forever. Within 6 months, your communication abilities will have improved.

About the Author

Kate Hopkins is a licensed audiologist in both Illinois and Wisconsin. She currently works on Washington Island and will begin practicing in Sister Bay in the Spring. For questions, comments or more information, please feel free to email Kate at hopkinshearinghealth@gmail.com

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