Will my hearing get worse if I don’t get hearing aids? Will getting hearing aids stop my hearing from getting worse?
This is a complicated question – the short answer for both questions is yes and no (confusing I know). The first thing to keep in mind is that we hear with our brain, not our ears. When you have hearing loss it means that your hearing pathways (i.e. nerves from your ear to your brain) are not being used as much as they could be – your brain is not receiving as much stimulation as someone with normal hearing. The longer your hearing system goes without being stimulated, the more risk there is of nerves/nerve pathways wearing out (i.e. atrophy) – this is referred to as auditory deprivation.
The saying “Use It or Lose It” is very accurate to our hearing system. Our bodies are very efficient and if you are not using something, your body will not waste valuable resources on it to keep it working. For example, if you were to use a wheelchair for 10 years instead of walking it would be quite difficult, if not impossible, to stand up or walk. This is because your body figured out that all of your muscles, ligaments, nerves, etc. that you use to stand and walk are not being used and it told itself, “We should use energy on the things we are actually using instead of wasting energy on parts of our body that you are not.”
Now think about hearing loss – most people wait, on average, 7-10 years to get a hearing test once they start having concerns with their hearing. This means that you have told your body that you do not need to use all of the nerve pathways that travel from your ear(s) to your brain so your body lets them wear out – as a result the brain’s ability to understand speech, especially in noisy settings, becomes impaired. When you finally get hearing aids, the benefit can be less than optimal because of this nerve damage – if people would get their hearing checked on a regular basis, and get hearing aids as soon as hearing loss appeared, these pathways would remain stimulated and we would maximize benefit with hearing aids.
As far as we know at this point in audiology, the damage “within” your inner ear will happen regardless of whether you get hearing aids or not. The nerve endings in the inner ear (called hair cells) have their own timeline, and that timeline will remain the same with hearing aids or not.
In summary, untreated hearing loss can lead to a deterioration of your hearing pathways to your brain and hearing aids help keep these pathways stimulated, healthy, and active. However, the damage in your middle or inner ear will occur as a result of other health related factors (e.g. trauma, noise exposure, presbycusis, ototoxic medications, infections) and hearing aids cannot stop this from happening.
Image courtesy of Oticon © 2016.