Even a Subtle Hearing Loss When Young Can Affect Brain Function

July 30, 2023
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When we are young it’s all too common to feel invincible. We are so in love with living and moving and it feels amazing!  Our brains are not capable of considering that anything could happen to prevent that and in truth most of us haven’t had the experience to foresee the consequences of our actions. This means we may look back on some of the dangerous things we’ve done and just be thankful we survived. However, for those of us who have loved listening to loud music we may still be living with these consequences. 

Nights out at loud concerts and hours blasting music through our headphones as teens may add up into lasting hearing loss and it’s more damaging than you think. Untreated hearing loss can add up into serious impacts to our health that range from emotional, physical, and cognitive. Now, new research from The Ohio State University has determined that young people with subtle hearing loss, may be putting a higher strain on brain function that in the past hasn’t been recorded until later in life.

Hearing with Our Brain

We collect sound with our outer ear—the part we can see. However, the process of hearing is not completed until soundwaves travel past the eardrum and ossicles to be transformed into electrical impulses the brain can interpret. Our ears achieve this amazingly by way of tiny hair like cells called stereocilia. When we are exposed to loud noise at any age it can cause sound waves violent enough to shatter or destroy the tiny hairlike cell, blocking some sounds from reaching the brain. 

“Hearing loss, even minor deficits, can take a toll in young people – they’re using cognitive resources that could be preserved until much later in life,” explains lead researcher Yune Lee, an assistant professor of speech and hearing science at Ohio State. “Most concerning, this early hearing loss could pave the way for dementia.”

A Study in Cognitive Decline in Younger People With Hearing Loss

To understand the cognitive impact of hearing loss, Lee and his team monitored the brain activity of  healthy people between the ages of 18 to 41 years old, while they listened to various sentences in varying levels of difficulty. As the sentences increased in difficulty it required the brains of the test subjects to work harder to understand the sentences.

An Unexpected Discovery

Originally, the study was designed to examine brain differences as sentence complexity increased, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This allowed the scientists to measure and map brain activity. However, the researchers were surprised to discover the impact of subtle hearing loss on cognitive ability. Before administering the fMRI tests, the researchers tested participants’ hearing to make sure it wouldn’t be a factor in the testing. While some of the younger participants had subtle hearing deficits, the scientists didn’t consider it to be anything serious enough to exclude them from the study.

Lee and his colleagues expected to note brain activity in the left hemisphere of the brain. However, as the study progressed it was discovered that subjects with subtle hearing decline displayed activity in the right hemisphere as well, in the right frontal cortex. 

“This isn’t about the ear – it’s about the brain, the cognitive process, and it shouldn’t be happening until people are at least older than 50,” Lee explained.

Signs of an Aging Brain

When we are young it is the left side of the brain that is fully responsible for language comprehension however, as we age, it is normal for us to rely on the right frontal brain to process language. 

“But in our study, young people with mild hearing decline were already experiencing this phenomenon,” Lee states. “Their brains already know that the perception of sound is not what it used to be and the right side starts compensating for the left.”

Hearing Loss and Dementia

Hearing loss has long been linked to higher rates of dementia—a grouping of neurodegenerative diseases which impair thinking, reasoning, and function. “Previous research shows that people with mild hearing loss are twice as likely to have dementia. And those with moderate to severe hearing loss have three to five times the risk,” Lee said.

Taking Your Hearing Seriously

Hearing loss can occur at any age, so it is important to protect it now. If you suspect you are dealing with a possible hearing loss, don’t hesitate to contact us today. We can test your hearing and find a solution to keep you hearing healthy for years to come.