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Hearing loss is a surprisingly common affliction, affecting 48 million Americans of all age groups. It’s estimated that even as many as 20% of teenagers have measurable noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), and age-related hearing loss can begin as early as age 45. NIHL is the #2 medical concern for veterans returning home, with tinnitus (another problem with the ear) being #1.
Hearing protection should be worn at all times when sound levels get into the danger zone, and there is new evidence that anti-inflammatory diets like the Alternate Mediterranean diet (AMED) and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) can help prevent age-related hearing loss. Quitting smoking also greatly reduces the risk of hearing loss.
Listening Fatigue Is an Early Sign of Hearing Loss
Those who have hearing loss know just how exhausting it can be. In fact, listening fatigue is one of the earliest consequences of hearing loss. It occurs especially when we meet friends or loved ones at a busy or crowded place like a restaurant or bar and we find that we can barely make out what they’re saying over the background noise. As hearing loss progresses, we’ll begin to experience listening fatigue to a higher degree than normal even in one-on-one conversations at home.
Many people who are beginning to experience age-related hearing loss can mistake this listening fatigue for a separate age-related condition. Have you ever known a person who says, “I know I’m getting old because I’m tired all the time?” It could be that their hearing loss is what made them tired.
Overworking the Brain Due to Hearing Loss
With normal hearing, electrical representations of sound enter the brain through the auditory nerve and into the auditory cortex of the brain. Here, speech is interpreted, then we use our frontal cortex to analyze what we’ve heard, think about it, compare it to what we know, formulate a response, etc. Our huge brains can do a lot with the spoken word.
The problem is, when we have hearing loss, our auditory cortex doesn’t get the full picture. It can’t do the business of interpreting speech because it’s only receiving bits and fragments. So now our frontal cortex, usually doing so much interpretive and creative work, is tasked with trying to put these fragments together into a coherent picture of what the other person has said. It’s not only doing the thinking, it’s also doing the interpreting, normally accomplished by the auditory cortex.
Now we’re scrambling to keep up, and our frontal cortex is being overtaxed. It’s doing a lot of “busy work,” trying to pick up the slack for the auditory cortex. This extra work, in addition to slowing us down and making conversation less fun, also makes us fatigued a lot sooner than we would otherwise be.
If hearing loss goes untreated with hearing aids, this fatigue can start to rule our lives. Those who don’t treat their hearing loss tend to shrink away from social engagements, over time becoming lonelier and potentially paranoid. Indeed, negative health outcomes might abound if we let hearing loss get the better of us.
Dealing With Listening Fatigue
Even for those with normal hearing, listening fatigue will sometimes set in. Here are a few tricks for dealing with it:
- Take Some Quiet Time. We all need some quiet time each day. Take a break away from other people, find a quiet spot, turn off the television or radio, read a book. Whatever you find works for you, find some way to get away from the noise for a little while every day.
- Deep Breathing. In addition to breaking from the noise, practice a little deep breathing. This can lower your blood pressure and stress levels, and reinvigorate your senses so you’ll be more “in the moment” when you return to the hustle & bustle.
- Reduce or Eliminate Background Noise. The addition of background noise makes conversation more difficult even for those with normal hearing. For those with hearing loss, it can make it downright impossible. If you’re meeting up with someone for work or fun, try to arrange it for a quiet place where you can focus more easily on the conversation. If noise can be easily reduced, ask politely to have it be lowered.
- Take a nap. Sometimes stigmatized as “lazy” or thought to interfere with nighttime sleep, the nap can get a bad rap. The truth is, most of the figures we identify as geniuses from history were avid nappers, and a quick 20-30 minute nap can leave you refreshed, invigorated, more creative, and won’t make it harder to sleep at night.
If you’re experiencing listening fatigue from day to day and you’re not yet wearing hearing aids, make an appointment for a hearing test today and see if they’re the best next step for you. Your ears and your conversational partners will thank you!