Anyone who has lived with hearing loss can tell you how exhausting it is. Especially if background noise is present, straining to hear speech can wear us out and leave us needing some time to recharge our proverbial batteries!
Everyone can experience listening fatigue, whether we have hearing loss or not. Our brain works hard to process incoming sound and make sense of it, and even if it’s getting a clear representation of all the sound in the environment, it will eventually need a rest.
When hearing loss comes into play, our brain has to work even harder.
Sound, the Brain, and Hearing Loss
Inside our inner ear, there are about 16,000 tiny, hair-like cells called stereocilia. These cells pick up different frequencies of sound, each one sending an electrical impulse to the brain when it is activated. When hearing is normal, our brain makes sense of this sound almost automatically in an area called the auditory cortex, inside the temporal lobe.
As hearing loss starts to come into play, our brain doesn’t get enough information to make sense. But our brain is a meaning-making machine! Even though a sound might be confusing on its own, we will start to use other parts of our brain to try to make sense of it.
A good example of this phenomenon is the use of “context clues” to try to piece sentences together, when they are partially heard. If we can’t hear the difference between “beach” or “peach,” we might infer “beach” if someone is talking about a tropical vacation, or “peach” if they’re talking about different fruits they like to put on their oatmeal in the morning. Without the context of the conversation, we might be at a total loss as to which word they said.
The problem that hearing loss presents is that this might happen several times in any given sentence. When we have to activate far-flung parts of our brain over and over to comprehend a single sentence, we’re likely to become tired pretty quickly! We’re using a lot of our brain just to understand what is being said—then, we still have to do all the normal work of carrying on a conversation.
An Early Sign
This increased listening fatigue is one of the earliest signs of problematic hearing loss. Usually when we’re out at a bar or restaurant with friends or family, we will start to notice how difficult it is to understand what they’re saying, and we will become tired earlier than we’re used to. Many people who are new to age-related hearing loss may mistake this for a separate age-related condition—”I just can’t stay out as late as I used to.” In fact, a set of hearing aids can allow us to enjoy our time with friends and family as much as ever.
How to Cope with Listening Fatigue
Whether or not we have hearing loss, there are some good tips we can follow to avoid listening fatigue, especially if our routines involve intense listening:
- Take a Break – The best way to avoid listening fatigue is to avoid overexposure to sound whenever possible. In general, one hour of intense listening should be followed by 5–10 minutes of silence, but the more time you can spend away from extraneous noise, the better. Try stepping outside and going for a walk, or just find a quiet room. Read a book rather than watching a movie. If you wear hearing aids, turn them off or take them out for a few minutes.
- Reduce Background Noise – Whenever possible, keep background sound to a minimum, especially if you’re trying to have a conversation. Background sound can tax our mental resources almost without us realizing it. Try to use quieter appliances, or use them on a “quiet” setting.
- Take a Nap – Napping for 20–30 minutes gives us a quick energy boost that can increase our mental resources. By keeping it short, we won’t become groggy or have trouble getting to sleep at night. If we can find a quiet place to nap in, we’ll not only shore up our energy levels but rest our ears at the same time.
Fatigue is one of the most annoying things about untreated hearing loss, but hearing aids can all but eliminate this problem. It’s not that we’ll never experience listening fatigue with a set of hearing aids, but our tendency to become fatigued will be about the same as anyone with normal hearing.