I love this question, and I hear it from my patients all the time. It is similar to other questions that people ask the experts: How many hours a day do I need to exercise to be fit? How many hours a day should I practice the piano to become proficient?
Now, before I answer this question, allow me to take you on a tangent. I promise to come back.
For years we debated the “exercise” question. Then athletes started making huge amounts of money and most universities created “exercise” (physiology) departments, and the type and style of exercise became a well-understood topic, no longer debated.
You see the result of exercise by looking at each individual athlete. Swimmers look like swimmers, athletes who run long distances look like distance runners. Each athlete molds his or her body into an efficient machine that is engineered for a particular sport.
Now let’s take this concept one step farther. Suppose your area of expertise is the human brain. Now ask the same type of question in regard to developing the brain, i.e., how many hours a day do people need to “exercise their brain” to develop it?
What neuroscientists have found is that brain development mirrors an individual’s type of activity. In other words, people who spend their days perfecting fine motor skills have highly developed brain function in the cerebellum, while people who “work” their emotional skills have a highly developed limbic system.
What these brain scientists are telling us is that “exercising” (using) one part of the brain does not develop the entire brain, it only develops a singular region: Thinking develops the prefrontal cortex, listening develops the auditory cortex, etc.
There are mental activities that develop all parts of the brain, e.g., a trained musician playing the piano while singing a song is “working” all areas of the brain. But, when we listen to music we are developing a narrow region of the auditory cortex. If you want the fine motor control areas of the brain enhanced, you need to do fine motor controlled exercises.
So, How Many Hours a Day Should You Wear Hearing Aids?
Now back to our initial question, “How many hours a day should I wear my hearing aid?” This is an important issue for patients, and one that needs discussing. But before attempting to give an answer, we have to get more down-to-earth, specific information about what the patient wants. Let’s ask: “Which listening hearing skills do you want to enhance?”
If the patient tells you, “I want to hear the TV and my spouse,” then the answer is straightforward. But if the patient’s response to your question is, “I want to hear my spouse, but I also want to hear and understand all of the ladies in my club when we have our Friday night dinner in the restaurant,” then answering it becomes more complex.
Like those who are trying to develop their body or their brain, hard-of-hearing people needs to “exercise” the specific portion of their brain (auditory cortex and long- and short-term memory areas) that they want to use. If listening in noise is desired, then listening-in-noise exercise must be done regularly.
The field of applied neurology has made huge strides over the past ten years. We now know a lot about brain development and the decay of brain tissues. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that if you want to keep your brain, and all of your abilities, you need to use them, work them, love them, strengthen them. We now know it is not rocket science. It is just work.