February 23, 2023

Healthy Ageing – how hearing “well’ helps us stay young

Our team member, Robert, was recently in hospital, where he had time to reflect on listening to professionals, taking their advice, healthy living, ageing, well-being, cognitive health, age, and, of course, hearing. Here he shares his thoughts with us:

“So, there I lay, in the pre-op area, waiting for the pre-med to take effect before I was given general anesthesia. Bright lights overhead, the whirring of strange machines surrounding me accompanied the aural backdrop of some unknown constant beeping emanating from monitors hooked up to my fellow traveler in the adjacent cubicle. Caught in those few moments before slipping into unconsciousness, my mind was full of questions, observations, and perhaps, just a little clarity.  It seemed like my 65 years had crept up on me unawares whilst I was looking the other way.

“When I look in the mirror, I see someone way older than I expect to see. My mind seems to be stuck somewhere in my mid-twenties, trimming some 40 years off reality. Meeting someone of a similar age, they seem more mature and, in some ways, so much older! Turns out I’m not alone, and science has a term for this very common internal time warp. After about 25, most people think of themselves as younger than their chronological age. And the gap in subjective age, as it’s called, widens with time.

“This wrinkle in the perception of time might be driven by how fast our brain ages compared to our body. In a recent study published in Neurocognitive Aging and Behaviour, scientists asked adults (59 – 84 years) about their health and how old they felt. They carried out a series of cognitive tests and brain scans to look for signs of aging. Those who put their subjective age lower than their real age scored better on memory tests, were less likely to report signs of depression, and their brains had more grey matter in the key areas that do matter.

“I know feeling younger than my age is a positive state of mind to have and my overall well-being is inextricably linked to my good physical health as well as maintaining good cognitive health. Ageing is that life event that we all encounter from the moment we take our first breath. But aging doesn’t have to infer something that’s negative. It seems that we fall into one of two distinct camps: people who give in to their years, aging prematurely and those, who like me, don’t want to turn back time but have the desire to live our lives to the full and in the very best of health. One implies resignation, accepting a sense of the inevitable. The other, resistance and fighting the good fight. It’s good to know that science supports my aging mindset.

“I eat well, I don’t over-indulge but like everyone I can always do more and take better care of myself.  And when I seek the advice of a specialist, I always listen and act: which is how I came to be lying on a hospital bed in the first place*. I hope you agree it would seem a complete waste of everyone’s time to make an appointment, undergo a series of tests and get a professional opinion – to then ignore the advice on offer.

“As it was taking some time, or so it seemed, for my meds to kick in, I wondered why as an audiologist, (aka hearing specialist), some patients and clients question the advice they are given and refuse to address their hearing problems. If I listen to my chosen specialist, why do some of my patients chose not to listen to me? And talking to my professional peers, it seems I’m not alone in finding the advice I give, sometimes falls, ironically, on deaf ears.

“As a professional clinician, I am constantly reviewing research evidence to become a better expert on hearing. And a key area of my focus these days centres on how the brain makes sense of what we hear and what happens when it is starved of sound due to physiological changes in the ear. Some recent scholarly articles have drawn correlations and conclusions between hearing, listening, well-being and how it is entwined with physical as well as cognitive health. The science confirming something we’ve always suspected: the earlier we audiologists intervene in fitting hearing aids and providing hearing treatments, the better it is for general well-being and overall health.

“One of the most amazing abilities of the human brain is its capacity for change. The brains’ own engine-management system constantly monitoring everything and making sure all is working well. If an area of the brain seems to be underperforming, underutilized, and not doing the job it was intended to do then the brain has the power to reorganise itself, literally rewiring itself and assigning itself an alternative function. In the case of our sense of hearing, the auditory cortex** is the ultimate destination where our ears deliver its neural code to. So when someone’s hearing has begun to change, this directly reduces the amount of electrical or neurological information that ends up being delivered and so the auditory cortex is given a new task.

“Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt or change. While the brain is most amenable to change early in childhood, neuroplastic changes can occur at any time because of disease, injury, dysfunction, and learning (adulthood neuroplasticity). Studies show even the mildest of untreated hearing loss is associated with neural reorganisation and cognitive deficits.

“Mild hearing changes may only have a minor noticeable impact leaving people reluctant or questioning whether to accept our advice to wear hearing aids. It also can impact the professionals’ advice as audiologists can be hesitant to recommend hearing aids until hearing loss has negatively impacted quality of life, by when it might be too late to reverse or improve things enough. More recent studies and best practice guidance, suggest the neuro-plastic cortical effects resulting from mild hearing loss on the brain demand greater consideration of the potential benefits of earlier treatment.  Improving and augmenting how we hear plays a key role in influencing our overall wellness and defending healthy aging.”

* And healthy aging was the reason I ended up in an operating theatre in the first place. The next thing I knew, I awoke in the recovery room, an hour later with no memory of what just happened. Thankfully I did recall what I was thinking just before I went under so I could share it here with you.

** I have oversimplified the amazing process of how sound travels from the ear to the brain and back to the ear again. If you are interested in learning more ‘Of Sound Mind’ (The MIT Press) by neuroscientist, Nina Krauss is a great read. In her book, Nina writes:  “The sound mind is vast. When we hear, electrical signals course throughout the brain, moving upstream and downstream, interacting with our other senses, how we move, how we think, and how we feel. This entire brain network enables us to make sense of sound – to create meaning from our sonic world.”