Every May the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association brings attention to communication issues with Better Speech and Hearing Month. Over the course of four weeks ASHA promotes health awareness initiatives. This year, the motto for Better Speech and Hearing Month is “Communication for All” and at HearCare Rhode Island, we couldn’t agree more. We’re committed to helping people better understand hearing loss and connect with solutions that improve their lives.
Let’s focus on one of this year’s key initiatives for Better Speech and Hearing Month: raising awareness about the connection between hearing loss and dangerous falling accidents in older adults. Falling injuries represent a serious health risk, especially as we age. Each year 2.8 million falling accidents result in an emergency care visit and one out of every five falls results in a major injury such as a fractured bone or head trauma.
What can be done to minimize the risk of falling accidents? You may be surprised that our ability to hear is directly related to how likely we are to sustain a falling injury. Untreated hearing loss greatly increases our risk of falling, while treating hearing loss and managing our hearing health helps our balance and coordination. While on the surface, this relationship may seem to hardly be logical, it ends up being a direct relationship of cause and effect.
Hearing Loss and Cognition
The core of the issue lies in understanding how our hearing is part of our brain. The auditory system includes the delicate sensing mechanisms in our ears, and also the auditory nerve and cortex which detect and interpret pattern and meaning from sound.
When we suffer hearing loss, it often results from damage to the delicate apparatus of the inner ear. Fine hair cells that are attuned to pick up the vibrations of sound waves can be damaged by noise, infection, aging and a host of other issues. When a hair cell is damaged it does not grow back or repair itself. With the hair cell permanently out of commission, it becomes a tiny gap in our ability to hear.
Once the hair cells detect a sound wave, they send signals to the brain via the auditory nerve. When we lose our hearing acuity, we are sending incomplete signals to the brain where the auditory cortex is charged with interpreting the meaning and location of incoming speech and noise.
The brain is naturally adapted to hear sound with healthy hearing. When hearing loss enters the picture it has to scramble to piece together information. Think of it like trying to solve a full crossword puzzle with only half of the clues – to fill in the blanks, your mind works extra hard. This mental work requires mental resources. Over time, hearing loss changes the way the brain works. It also pulls in extra cognitive resources to interpret sound. When it uses resources for hearing, other brain functions are short changed.
Cognition and Falling
When we work extra hard to hear, it feels like work. Listening with hearing loss can feel exhausting at times because it is mentally very difficult. It also takes our attention and cognitive resources away from other parts of brain functions, such as balance and coordination.
The brain is used to working like a well-oiled machine, distributing resources where they are needed. When one part of the mind needs extra resources other aspects will come up short. Under-serving our bodies ability to steady and coordinate itself has serious consequences. For one, falling becomes much more likely when we are distracted from the physical actions and reactions of our body.
Cognitive drain can lead to falls and accidental falls are serious business. Falls account for 95% of hip fractures and falling is the leading cause of traumatic brain injuries. Falling often leads to long recovery times and large medical bills. They can limit mobility and cause lasting damage.
HearCare Rhode Island
At HearCare Rhode Island, we know how difficult hearing loss can be – and we’ve also seen how treating hearing loss can make a huge difference to people’s lives. Better Speech and Hearing Month is a great time to get on top of your hearing health. If you have noticed issues or changes with your hearing, schedule an exam with HearCare is your first step. May is also the time to remember healthy hearing maintenance, start a tradition of annual hearing exams to build a health history and stay in front of hearing loss.