Audiologists and otologists have known for several years that if hearing loss goes untreated for too long, a phenomenon called auditory deprivation occurs. Auditory deprivation is a decrease in a person’s ability to understand speech clearly because of a lack of adequate auditory stimulation.
Most audiologists check their patient’s word recognition during the initial comprehensive hearing evaluation. The word recognition test assesses the patient’s ability to repeat words presented to them at a comfortable listening level which is usually at a level high enough to compensate for their hearing impairment. When a patient scores very low on the word recognition test, it is often because of auditory deprivation. The reversibility of auditory deprivation has been a source of dispute among researchers. However, we know that 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 found that the patients’ hearing thresholds for pure 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.
The good news is that when identified early and treated quickly, individuals with hearing loss have better success with hearing devices and preserve their having ability to understand speech for the remainder of their lifespan. The longer a person delays seeking help, the greater their chances of having poor speech recognition. It is very sad when someone comes into the office too late. Their word recognition scores are very low and then they are very disappointed that speech is not clear even with new hearing aids.