These, and many other benefits of hearing, may seem obvious, but what about the ways hearing can influence your life “behind the scenes?” From the very beginning of life onward, your ability to hear shapes and changes the way you interact with the world.
At birth, a baby’s brain is primed to hear an almost endless number of subtle differences in sounds. This, in large part, is to set up the process of learning spoken language. Different languages have their own set of sounds, letters, and sometimes even tones of voice, that create words and meaning. Babies’ brains are set up to hear the difference between any and all of these sounds so that they can learn whichever language is spoken around them (Tsao, Liu, & Kuhl, 2004). As we age, we lose most of this ability, so learning a new language becomes more difficult. Similarly, if a baby is born with even a mild hearing loss, like an adult trying to learn a second language, he or she cannot pick up these subtle differences in sounds and his or her ability to learn spoken language will not only be harder, but possibly delayed.
Moving on to school age, when hearing in noisy classrooms becomes essential when learning to read, write, and move through years of school. Without proper classroom accommodations, children with hearing loss often struggle to follow the teacher’s instruction, appear distracted, or may fall behind their classmates in terms of learning objectives. On the other side of things, certain types of complex exposure to sounds can have positive effects on learning ability; new studies are showing that regularly playing a musical instrument can strengthen language and literacy skills in children (Kraus & White-Schwoch, 2017).
Once we reach adulthood, the focus of hearing health is less about meeting milestones, and more about maintaining the skills that have already developed. When it comes to hearing, our ears are the starting point but our brains do all the heavy lifting. Our brain has to tease apart conversations from background noise in a restaurant, has to be able to recognize the voice of a loved one, and has to be able to alert us when a sound could be signaling danger. But our hearing goes beyond just the basics of sound processing. Something as simple as listening to a favourite song can activate areas of the brain that process language, emotions, and memories, all at once. It is amazing how many areas of our brain are triggered when we are exposed to meaningful sounds! With an untreated hearing loss, many of these complex connections are no longer being used, and our ability to engage with sound begins to weaken. In the long run, studies have shown that if this loss of engagement with sound continues, we can see negative effects in overall mental health, social engagement and even cognitive ability (Arlinger, 2003; Castiglione et al., 2016; Lin et al., 2013;). This is why the benefits of maintaining good hearing health go way beyond simply being able to carry on a conversation.
With all of the ways our hearing can affect our daily life and overall health, it’s no wonder that we should be protecting our hearing and making sure to get routine hearing checkups with an audiologist.
Our hearing is a complex sense, and keeping those hearing pathways in your brain healthy will help you keep your most social sense in tip top shape. Trusting your hearing health to a certified audiologist is the best way to ensure you are hearing well your whole life through. This just leaves one question… Who’s your audiologist?
Arlinger, S. (2003) Negative consequences of untreated hearing loss: A review. International Journal of Audiology, 42, 2S17-21.
Castiglione A, Benatti A, Velardita C, Favaro D, Padoan E, Severi D, Pagliaro M, Bovo R, Vallesi A, Gabelli C, Martini A (2016). Aging, cognitive decline and hearing loss: Effects of auditory rehabilitation and training with hearing aids and cochlear implants on cognitive function and depression among older adults. Audiol Neurootol. 2016;21 Suppl 1:21-28
Kraus, N., & White-Schwoch, T. (2017). Neurobiology of every day communication: What have we learned from music? The Neuroscientists. 23(3)287-298
Lin F, et al. (2013). Hearing loss and cognitive decline in older adults. JAMA Intern Med. 173(4)293-299.
Tsao, F., Liu, H., & Kuhl, P. (2004). Speech perception in infancy predicts language development in the second year of life: A longitudinal study. Child Development. 75(4)1067-1084
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