Contributed by Debbie Clason, staff writer, Healthy Hearing
Thanks to your magnificent brain, you’ve been learning things since you were a child. In fact, much of what your brain does for you goes unnoticed – blinking, swallowing, listening – and we only become aware of it when doesn’t work like it should.
Take hearing, for instance. Scientists have been studying the relationship between hearing and brain function for decades. Turns out, the two are pretty dependent on each other. Our ears keep the brain supplied with a constant stream of stimuli and, when it stops coming in for whatever reason, our brain is at a greater risk for developing illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
What is auditory rehabilitation?
Fortunately, hearing loss treatment can help maintain your brain health as well as your overall quality of life. Hearing healthcare professionals call this aural or auditory rehabilitation (or education) and, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, it has several different components:
Older adults struggle to hear ‘fast talkers’
Like any other part of your body, you can’t begin rehabilitation without a proper diagnosis. That’s why hearing healthcare professionals urge you to have a hearing test as part of your annual healthcare regiment, especially if you’re over the age of 50 or notice you are having problems hearing.
Even if you don’t need hearing aids, you’ll most likely benefit from learning better communication strategies. That’s especially true if you’re older. Karen Van Doorne Nagelkirk, Au.D., FAAA, of Van Doorne Hearing Care in Michigan, said while the average person speaks approximately 150 words per minute, people over the age of 60 typically only understand 124 words per minute.
“When people talk fast, it’s often not an audibility issue, it’s a processing issue,” she explained. “No matter how well you hear, you may not be able to process it. One of things we teach is how to communicate using clear speech and to pause frequently in order to let the brain catch up.”
Your family’s understanding of your hearing loss
Not only is it important for you to get proper treatment, it’s also important for your family to understand what type of hearing loss you have and learn to communicate with you effectively.
“Self-esteem is an important part of aural rehabilitation,” Dr. Van Doorne said. “Communication partners need to understand that. We teach two rules of thumb here: Talk in the same room and call somebody’s name first. If you do that, you’ll improve success and self-esteem by 80 percent.”
Your hearing aid
After your hearing has been evaluated, the next step in rehabilitation may be learning to use hearing aids.
“Aural education is critical to hearing aid success,” Joseph K. Duran, Au.D., of New Generation Hearing in Florida, said. “Many people don’t even realize they’ve lost hearing and you forget what you’ve not heard for awhile.”
Dr. Duran said the duration of the rehabilitation varies from patient to patient, depending upon the severity and nature of the hearing loss. The worse the loss, the longer rehabilitation may take.
“When you first start using hearing aids, even the sound of your own voice sounds strange,” Brooke Tudor, Au.D., of Hearing Health Center in Michigan, said. “We typically encourage our patients to read the newspaper or a magazine out loud in order to get used to the sound of their own voice. We also ask them to keep a journal so they can record how they’re doing with different parts of speech.”
Learning to listen again
With any type of rehabilitation, it may take some time for your brain to relearn things it’s forgotten. The sooner you seek treatment for your hearing loss, the shorter amount of time your rehabilitation may take. Unfortunately, research indicates most individuals wait an average of seven years after their hearing loss has been diagnosed before seeking treatment.
“When you first get hearing instruments, your brain is aware of all the soft sounds you haven’t been hearing for awhile, such as the sound of your own breathing or feet on a carpet,” Dr. Van Doorne explained. “We know that 75 percent of conversation happens at soft conversation levels, which is why we like to fit you earlier rather than later. If we can fit you earlier, you’ll adjust easier because your brain hasn’t yet forgotten what it knows.”
Assistive listening devices
Thanks to recent advances in technology, today’s hearing aids work in tandem with other devices to enhance your hearing. Part of your aural rehabilitation may involve learning how to use these assistive listening devices, depending upon your expectations, lifestyle and personal situation.
“It’s not always about the hearing instrument, it’s about making the patient successful,” Dr. Van Doorne explained. “Bluetooth and hearing loops help make that possible.”
Dr. Van Doorne told the story of a 95 year-old patient who came to see her. “She was wearing the latest technology, but she still wasn’t happy. She had been to three other hearing centers before she came to me. I said “I don’t know what else I can do for you. What is it you want to do?” She said “I want to be able to hear the radio that’s 12 feet away while I’m doing dishes and looking out the window.” I said “Oh, you need Bluetooth.” Now she’s 99 years old and on her second set of Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids. She absolutely loves them.”
Using visual clues
Finally, if you haven’t been hearing well for awhile, you may be using your eyes to give you visual clues to make up for what you cannot hear. For example, you may be lipreading or looking for facial expressions, gestures and body language to distinguish whether someone just told your they were mad – or they were sad. Aural rehabilitation may include speechreading training, which provides formal training in how speech sounds are made and which speech sounds look alike when you’re lipreading.
“Aural rehabilitation isn’t harmful to anyone,” Dr. Tudor said. “It’s beneficial whether you have hearing aids or not. We give communication strategies to everyone to make sure they have opportunities to boost understanding, especially in complex listening environments such as restaurants or at family gatherings. Everybody acclimates to hearing loss treatment at their own pace, depending on age, overall health and current cognitive abilities. Anyway you can help that along will get you there that much quicker.