Hearing Loss – Increases Physical Risk

By on August 1, 2016
Hearing Loss – Increases Physical Risk

By Lisa Klop, Au. D. –

We all hope to “age in place” – stay in our homes and lead full, healthy lives for as long as possible. However, the older we get, the greater the risk of serious injury from accidents. Many who live alone worry about what would happen if we didn’t hear someone breaking in downstairs or a fire alarm going off. Or if we lose our balance in the bathroom or trip in the kitchen. And everyone wants to avoid developing dementia that ultimately robs us of our dignity and independence altogether.

Unaddressed hearing loss taxes our mental resources, forcing our brains to use its precious resources on trying to hear instead of on maintaining our balance and other cognitive tasks. Not being able to hear well contributes to anxiety, stress, and feelings of paranoia. Fortunately, advanced hearing aids are available to alleviate the cognitive overload associated with struggling to hear all day, and can help seniors with hearing loss enjoy fuller, independent lives longer.

How straining to hear diverts your brain’s resources

Our ears may be the conduits of sound but the function we call hearing actually occurs in the brain. A 2015 study conducted at the University of Northern Colorado examined subjects and recorded their brain activity while listening to speech using electroencephalography (EEG).  The mental strain required to hear and understand speech was measurable and significant.

If you have hearing loss, you don’t need any studies to tell you that struggling to understand what others say all day long can be exhausting.  Just think about the last time you went out with friends for a meal in a crowded restaurant, attended a seminar in a cavernous, echoing auditorium, or tried to carry on a conversation in a car with the windows open. Straining to catch every word, let alone understand and keep up with what others are saying, requires concentration and demands your full attention.  

The physical risk is real

Once you understand that a brain occupied with trying to hear and comprehend has to redirect resources normally devoted to activities like maintaining spatial awareness and balance, the risk to your physical safety becomes clear.  One out of every five falls results in injuries like broken bones and concussion. The older you are, the more likely these injuries could be serious or life-threatening. Common risks include:

  • Tripping over a street curb
  • Missing a step while walking up or down stairs
  • Slipping while getting in or out of the shower
  • Distracted driving leading to accidents
  • Distracted walking into traffic or other hazards

Binaural hearing and safety

Humans naturally hear using binaural (using both ears) input. The specific processes involve binaural redundancy (hearing a sound in both ears lets you hear it twice, creating a more accurate perception of that sound), binaural squelch (when you’re surrounded by noise and speech, your brain can separate sounds and give priority to speech), and binaural directed listening (again, when you can hear many sounds, using both ears helps your brain pick out the one source you want to hear and focus on it).

Many people have unequal hearing loss affecting only one ear or worse hearing in one ear than the other. This obviously interferes with your natural binaural ability to hear and process sounds fully and accurately. However, there’s an additional concern. Binaural hearing helps you localize sounds no matter which direction they’re coming from. Without equal input from both ears, it becomes difficult to identify from which direction a sound is coming, creating a safety issue as well as a listening/processing challenge. Not knowing whether a siren is approaching from behind, to the side, or toward you presents a potential safety hazard when driving or walking. Similarly, not being able to tell if a loud crash came from inside or outside your home could lead to unnecessary panic, or conversely, too slow of a response. 

Hearing aids help you stay safe and independent

The most effective hearing aids are the ones that mimic how you hear naturally, which is why audiologists typically recommend buying them in pairs. The hearing aids exchange sound signals from both ears and imitate the normal sound processing in your brain, making intelligent processing decisions as a team. The benefit you receive is better clarity, richness of sound, and improved ability to recognize the direction from which a sound is originating.  Without having to struggle to figure out what you’re hearing or from where a noise or voice is coming, your brain can free up more resources to pay attention to your balance, spatial relationships, and general thought processes. Even if you have no useable hearing in one ear, you can enjoy the benefits of binaural hearing with advanced hearing aids solutions that route sounds coming toward the ear with unaidable hearing to the better ear.

Hearing aids have gotten smart in other ways, as well. They can recognize the speech or sound you want to pay attention to and isolate it by reducing noises like restaurant chatter, traffic, or wind. By making speech easier to understand without straining to hear it over noise, your brain can also relax and return some of its attention to maintaining cognitive health and physical safety. So, if you want to keep on living independently in security and confidence longer, talk to your doctor or a hearing care professional about how hearing aids can support your efforts.

Dr. Lisa Klop is an Educational Specialist for Sivantos, Inc., the manufacturer of Signia hearing aids. She is responsible for training customers and sales staff on the company’s current technology and products. She conducts training sessions in customers’ offices, remotely, via webinars, and at regional and national events.  Areas of particular expertise include hearing assistive technology and the fitting of kids and teens. Prior to joining Sivantos (then Siemens Hearing Instruments) in 2012, she operated a private dispensing practice for 6 years.  Other clinical experience includes hospital, ENT and non-profit clinics. Lisa obtained her doctorate degree in Audiology from Central Michigan University in 2005. 

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Hearing Loss – Increases Physical Risk