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Brain Awareness Week: How your brain and ears work together

Contributed by | Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

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In honor of Brain Awareness Week, Healthy Hearing wants to call attention to the way your brain and ears work together. Just for fun, let’s celebrate by comparing this great partnership to some other famous duos.

Who’s on first?

No matter how old you are, Abbot and Costello’s routine between a peanut vendor and baseball team manager is funny. The comedians debuted the routine in 1937 as part of their touring vaudeville review “Hollywood Bandwagon” and performed it live on the radio so often it quickly became a fan favorite. In 1956, the routine was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. While the due never performed it the same way twice, the two clearly worked in sync, each relying on the other to provide to play a specific role. 

Do you know how your ears and brain work 
together? The pair are a one-two knock out
enabling you to hear!

The same can be said for the way your ears and brain work together. While their functions are distinctly different, your hearing health depends on how they work in tandem.

The ear

The ear is a compilation of many parts that collects, translates and transmits sound on its way to the brain.

  • Outer Ear: Otherwise known as the pinna, the outer ear funnels sound into the ear canal.
  • Middle Ear: The eardrum separates the outer ear from the inner ear. When sound hits the ear drum, it vibrates and triggers tiny bones which send the sound to the inner ear.
  • Inner Ear: It’s here where sound is translated into electrical impulses by tiny hairs cells in the cochlea. These impulses travel along the auditory nerve to the brain for interpretation into recognizable sound.

The brain

The auditory nerve connects the cochlea of the inner ear directly to the auditory cortex on both sides of the brain, where sound is processed.

The auditory cortex is divided into three parts:

  • Primary auditory cortex: This area is primarily responsible for the ability to hear. Its purpose is to process sound along with its volume and pitch.
  • Secondary auditory cortex: This area processes harmonic, melodic and rhythmic patterns.
  • Tertiary auditory cortex: Researchers say this area is where everything is integrated into the overall experience of music.

I’ve got you, babe

Another famous partnership was a husband and wife rock and roll duo who were among the first hippie personalities to catch mainstream attention: Sonny and Cher. They released their biggest hit “I Got You Babe” in 1965, followed by a very successful music career and variety show in 1971.

While Cher had a stellar solo career after she split from Sonny, the same can’t be said for your brain when you have hearing loss. In fact, if you’ve been diagnosed with bilateral hearing loss – a common condition in which both ears suffer from a degree of hearing loss – your hearing health professional will recommend you buy a pair of hearing aids to maximize the hearing you have left. Why?

Your brain relies on both of your ears to collect sound, comparing the incoming data to decide what to focus on. The comparison helps our brain decide which information is important in understanding speech and focuses on that source while ignoring the background noise at the same time. As a result, those with asymmetrical hearing may have difficulty hearing voices in a noisy environment or judging the distance of an emergency vehicle's siren and typically experience greater communication difficulties.

Holy hearing health, Batman!

Famous crime-fighting duo Batman and Robin were DC Comic legends as early as 1939 — long before Adam West and Burt Ward first brought the characters to life in the Batman television series of the 1960s. Of course, your ears and brain don’t fight crime; however they do fight debilitating medical issues.

Untreated hearing loss may be an underlying symptom for a larger health problem, such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Those with untreated hearing loss are at a greater risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer's. Not hearing well can also lead to social isolation, relationship problems with friends and family, loss of income or earning potential, depression, anxiety and anger. And, because we hear with our brains, untreated hearing loss can also lead to cognitive difficulties. The brain can "forget" what it's like to hear, making it more difficult to regain those pathways once individuals do seek treatment.

But, wait — there's more. While most people know that the brain shrinks with age, you may not know that shrinkage is accelerated in those with hearing loss. According to research conducted by Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Aging, older adults with untreated hearing loss lost an average of a cubic centimeter of brain tissue each year compared to those with normal hearing. MRIs from the study participants showed the atrophy in the regions of the brain responsible for speech and sound.

Keeping the relationship healthy

Scientists have been studying the relationship between hearing and the brain for decades. Their findings are used by hearing instrument manufacturers to improve the hearing solutions they provide consumers just like you.The good news is, the majority of presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss, is sensorineural in nature and can be treated with a hearing aid.  While hearing aids do not restore normal hearing, 90 percent of hearing aid users are satisfied with the way their devices perform and report greater satisfaction with their daily routines. 

To keep your brain healthy, medical professionals recommend getting good sleep, regular physical exercise and engaging in mind-challenging activities, such as crossword puzzles.To keep your hearing healthy, hearing healthcare professionals recommend having a baseline hearing test at age 50 – or sooner if you suspect you have hearing loss – and to address any hearing loss diagnosis immediately. To find a hearing health professional in your community, visit our directory.

Your brain and hearing are a "dynamic duo" which work together not only to help you hear, but to maintain your overall health — and that's reason to celebrate every week of the year.

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