Did you know that March is a Brain Awareness Month? In honor of this, let’s look at the connection between the brain and the ear. It is a partnership that is often overlooked, but something that has been researched for years.

Hearing essentially occurs in the brain. Think of the ear as a vehicle for getting sound to the brain. Dig back into your memory of high school science class and you might remember that there are three main parts of the ear: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear.

  • The outer ear collects sound and transfers it down the ear canal to the eardrum which then vibrates.
  • The middle ear starts at the eardrum. When it vibrates, it moves tiny bones which transfer the sound farther into the ear. By the way, these are smallest bones in your body.
  • The inner ear contains tiny hair cells surrounded by fluid. When bones of the middle ear vibrate, it causes the inner ear fluid to move, which makes the hair cells wave just like beach grass moves with the ocean tides. This waving motion causes electrical impulses which transmit information to the brain.

Hearing & the Brain

So, what happens when all this sound arrives at the brain? It gets collected, sorted, separated, compared, and prioritized. Picture yourself at a party where the noise level is high. Think about how hard you work to focus on the person with whom you are speaking while at the same time trying to ignore what’s happening in the background. That’s your brain at work. This is difficult for people with normal hearing.  Having hearing loss makes it that much worse.

With hearing loss, the brain is not getting the sound stimulation it needs. There’s clear evidence that untreated hearing loss increases the risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s. At a basic level, untreated hearing loss can lead to isolation and depression, and even loss of job opportunities and earning potential.

So, keep your brain healthy by being mentally active. Follow these few steps:

  • If you have to yell to be heard over a noise, it is loud enough to do damage to your ears over time. Limit your exposure to these sounds and use hearing protection in these situations. This level of noise can be found in all kinds of daily activities, such as working with power tools, mowing your lawn, or attending your favorite team’s playoff game.
  • If you have been exposed to loud noises for a few hours, make sure to give your ears a rest over the next 12-24 hours.  Every part of our body needs a rest from overuse. Our ears are no different.
  • Follow the “60:60 Rule.” To safely enjoy music from your MP3 player, listen at 60 percent of the maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes a day. If your MP3 player has a ‘smart volume’  feature, use it.
  • Get a baseline hearing evaluation by an audiologist. The evaluation, at its most basic level, will start with the audiologist looking in your ears to assess their general condition. Then, you will be asked to listen to varying pitches and volumes of sound. The softest sounds you can hear will be graphed on an audiogram which shows the quality of your hearing. The audiologist will provide you with an explanation of the results, the effects on lifestyle, and possible solutions. If necessary, the audiologist will coordinate a visit with an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor.

With these few steps, you can start on the path to maximizing that essential partnership between your ears and your brain.

Deborah Rooney, MS, CCCA, is the Clinical Lead Audiologist of Audiology Services at The University of Vermont Medical Center. She oversees the Universal Newborn Hearing Screening program, which starts the process of evaluating for hearing loss at birth.

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