Hearing loss and listening fatigue
Ever feel exhausted after listening to someone speak for a long time? While it might be tempting to blame the speaker for being boring, in reality you might have what’s known as listening fatigue.
Most of the time, listening fatigue is a normal consequence of listening to sounds for extended periods of time (such as after a long work call or Zoom session). It’s your brain’s way of saying “I need a break!”
Why hearing loss can make you tired
The brain plays an important role in our ability to hear, understand and speak. The sensory hair cells of the inner ear are responsible for translating the noise the outer ear gathers into electrical signals, which they send along the auditory nerve to the brain.
When hearing loss is present, the brain must work harder to make sense of the information it receives from the inner ear, which can be mentally exhausting. Here’s why: Each hair cell is responsible for translating a specific pitch or frequency. When these cells die or are damaged, the auditory system loses the ability to translate that frequency, causing the brain to work harder to process incoming information.
Parts of the brain that process sound
When hearing is normal, these three areas of the brain work with the auditory system to interpret sound and produce speech:
- The temporal lobe is located behind your ears and extends to both sides of your brain. This is where the primary auditory cortex, which receives sensory information from the inner ear, is located.
- Wernicke’s area is located in the temporal lobe on the left side of the brain and is responsible for speech comprehension,
- Broca’s area, located in the lower portion of the left frontal lobe, is responsible for speech production
Hearing aids can help with ear fatigue
A 2011 study by researchers at Vanderbilt University tested 16 adults between the ages of 47-69 years of age with mild to severe sensorineural hearing loss to see what effect hearing aids would have on listening effort and mental fatigue. The participants’ word recognition, word recall and visual reaction time were tested with and without hearing aids. Results indicated that participants realized better word recall, and their reaction times were significantly faster with hearing aids than without.
Coping with listening fatigue
Even for those who have normal hearing, intense listening can be an exhausting experience. Here are a few tips for coping with listening fatigue throughout the day, regardless of whether you have normal hearing or hearing loss:
- Take a break from the noise. If you don’t wear hearing aids, consider taking a walk in nature or along a quiet street or finding somewhere to close your eyes and relax for a few minutes. Even if you’re a busy professional, find a quiet place to eat your lunch to provide a boost midday. Read instead of watching television. If you do wear hearing aids, take them out for a few minutes each day.
- Practice deep breathing. When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, stressed or frustrated, spend a few minutes doing some deep breathing exercises. The activity will help clear your mind while reducing stress and blood pressure.
- Eliminate background noise whenever possible. People with hearing loss often have trouble distinguishing speech from background noise. The less background noise your ears and brain have to process, the less taxing it will be to tune into the conversation and the more energy you’ll have.
- Take a nap. According to the National Sleep Foundation, a 20-30 minute nap can improve your alertness and performance without leaving you groggy or interfering with your nighttime sleep. Besides the energy boost a nap can provide, you’ll get the added bonus of quiet time.
Fight fatigue through better hearing
According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, approximately 48 million Americans report having some degree of hearing loss. In addition to listening fatigue, untreated hearing loss can put you at risk for developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, as well as depression, social isolation and anxiety.
If you aren’t hearing as well as you used to and believe you are experiencing listening fatigue, it’s time to have your hearing evaluated by a qualified hearing healthcare professional.