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Untreated Hearing Loss and Auditory Deprivation – Definition & Effect

Written by

Jeanne Graulich
Jeanne Graulich
Jeanne Graulich, MA, CCC-A is an audiologist on staff to guide your hearing aid journey in a safe and practical way. Jeanne brings over 30 years of experience fitting hearing aids, specializing in fittings with adults. Her passion for improving communication and overall quality of life shines through in every interaction.

It is well known in the hearing healthcare community that if hearing loss goes untreated for too long, a phenomenon called auditory deprivation occurs. Auditory deprivation is a decrease in an ear’s ability to understand speech clearly. A crucial part of every hearing examination involves the measurement of word discrimination. 

Word discrimination is the ability to repeat back words presented to the patient at a comfortable listening level. If the patient confuses many similar-sounding words such as confusing “fish” for “dish”, one possible cause may be auditory deprivation. The reversibility of auditory deprivation is a source of dispute among researchers; but one thing is clear, hearing aids have helped in preserving word clarity. The first study to document auditory deprivation was in 1984 by Silman and Silverman of City University of New York. The study followed hearing-impaired adults who had an equal amount of hearing loss in both ears but only wore one hearing aid. The study concluded that the ability to hear tones decreased the same amount in each ear over time, but that the ability to understand words decreased significantly in only the ear without the hearing aid. This study suggests that both ears be fit with hearing aids as soon as possible after a hearing loss is diagnosed to prevent auditory deprivation. 

Since that time, numerous investigations and studies worldwide have supported the initial findings. There are several theories on why auditory deprivation occurs. One thought is that the brain gradually loses some of its ability to process sound information because of the lack of sound stimulation. Another theory is that the brain adapts to the reduced sound levels. In the past, audiologists often fit people with only one hearing aid. Research over the years has shown that fitting only one hearing aid is a problem. An obvious difficulty is the inability to tell the direction of sound due to the uneven stimulation to each ear. Auditory deprivation is even a larger problem. If only one ear hears and understands better, it can become the dominant ear. The ear without the hearing aid is deprived of stimulation. The ear with the hearing aid hears better, while the unaided ear no longer tries to hear. There are still times when audiologists fit only one ear with a hearing aid, such as when a medical problem prohibits it, or when the ear is completely devoid of hearing. However, if a hearing loss exists in both ears, fitting both ears with a hearing aid is the route most often recommended by audiologists to achieve the best hearing quality. 

Recent hearing research supports the “use it or lose it” theory. 

Hearing is Living, Don’t Deprive Yourself.

Wearing a hearing aid will help to reduce the severity of your hearing loss. Additionally, you can participate in conversations and activities while remaining engaged. Continue reading to find out more.