For Children with Hearing Loss, Listening Can Be Exhausting Work

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McCreery, Ryan PhD, The Hearing Journal, May 2015

Clinicians frequently hear about fatigue experienced by their school-age pediatric patients with hearing loss. Parents often report that their children with hearing loss seem to become exhausted by activities that involve intensive listening, particularly during school. Children with hearing loss may say they feel overly tired at the end of a busy day compared with their peers who have normal hearing. These challenges can place children with hearing loss at a greater risk of academic difficulties and even long-term health problems.

In contrast to the ubiquity of these experiences among children seen in the clinic, the scientific evidence about the mechanisms behind listening fatigue and potential solutions for this problem have been limited, until recently. Researchers at Vanderbilt University have undertaken a large study to help shed light on fatigue in children with hearing loss.

How Hard Can It Be To Listen? Fatigue in School-Age Children with Hearing Loss

Even though nearly everyone has experienced feelings of tiredness, exhaustion, or limited energy, there still is limited agreement among scientists on how to define fatigue. Fatigue can occur from physical exercise or from intensive cognitive processing.

Fred H. Bess, PhD, and colleagues suggest that cognitive fatigue from mental exertion during listening tasks is the most concerning type for school-age children with hearing loss. In their paper, the authors present a theoretical model of how children with hearing loss experience fatigue.

Specifically, the task of understanding and processing speech degraded by the child’s hearing loss or the presence of background noise requires the allocation of cognitive resources to support understanding and learning. This increased demand on mental effort has a cumulative effect on the child over an entire day of listening to parents, teachers, and friends in noisy environments.

Because children with hearing loss may have to allocate more of their limited pool of cognitive resources to listening tasks, fewer of these resources are left available for other processes, such as taking notes and integrating new information. This means that children with hearing loss may fall behind in classroom discussions or miss important information while they are trying to understand what they are hearing.

Consistent listening fatigue can result in frustration or a lack of confidence. Over a longer period of time, fatigue can increase feelings of stress, which can have enduring implications for health and psychological well-being. Both the immediate and long-term consequences of listening fatigue can have significant negative effects on children with hearing loss.