Subtle hearing loss while young changes brain function, study finds

Subtle hearing loss while young changes brain function, study finds

Hearing loss is a condition which is commonly associated with old age. In fact, one in three people in the United States, 65 years and older has hearing loss and this number jumps to one in every two people 75 and older. However, it’s important to remember that hearing loss can happen at any point in your life regardless of age. 

One of the most common risks to the hearing of adolescents and younger adults is exposure to extreme levels of noise. When you are young you may not give a second thought to listening to loud music or engaging in loud activities without hearing protection. In truth the impacts of hearing loss when we are young may follow us throughout our lives. In fact, researchers from Ohio State University in a recent study, stumbled upon some very alarming research regarding the effects of hearing loss in young adults and a heightened risk of dementia later in life.

The Study

Hearing loss is measured in degrees of severity. For mild and even moderate hearing loss, it’s rare for action to be taken in regards to treatment. However, based on this study, addressing even a mild hearing loss may be essential to an improved quality of life. In a study led by researcher Yune Lee, the intent was to explore the way brain activity changes as it listens to and attempts to comprehend more and increasingly complex sentences. The study used a group of 35 younger adults between the ages of 18-41 years old and employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record brain activities as participants listened to sentences being read to them.

At the start of the study, hearing exams were administered to all participants to ensure they did not have a hearing issue which may interfere with the results. While some of the participants measured a subtle hearing loss, due to the lack of severity, these results were regarded as non-consequential.

The Surprising Risk of Subtle Hearing Loss

The researchers predicted that as participants listened to the sentences in increasing difficulty that they would observe higher rates of activity in the left hemisphere of the brain –the area responsible for processing language for the majority of young and healthy individuals. As we age cognitive decline is predictable as the brain begins to compensate for lost sounds by also using the right frontal cortex to process speech and language—a process more common after the age of 50 and beyond.

The researchers observed that during the study, those with no detectable hearing loss used their left hemisphere exclusively. Meanwhile, participants who measured a subtle hearing loss at the start of the study also relied on the right frontal lobe to process speech – a process more common in older adults! “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” explains Lee. “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,

Protect Your Hearing and Protect Your Brain

When we are young, we often feel impervious to damage, but it’s important to stress safe listening practices from the start. While this study in no way expected to discover this alarming impact on the brain even for younger adults, the results are very scary for cognitive health. This means that practicing hearing safety now will pay off for a lifetime. When working in noisy environments such as industrial workplaces or noisy recreational activities make sure to take listening breaks and wear hearing protection everytime. Protective earmuff and earplugs can reduce the decibel level from 15-33 dBA depending on the model. Meanwhile noise canceling hearing protection can reduce noise in loud environments.  

Schedule a Hearing Exam

Hearing loss caused by noise is permanent and we can’t always predict when we will be at risk. You won’t notice a subtle hearing loss but based on this study we now understand that it is certainly an issue which can affect our quality of life in a serious way. Make sure to schedule a hearing exam today and stay on top of your cognitive and hearing health. Your future self will thank you!