An often overlooked feature of our bodies, the ear is more important and connected than you may think. It captures sound waves to be processed and understood for our sense of hearing. It helps control our balance. It may even prove useful in healthier aging thanks to a small branch of the vagus nerve that runs through the outer ear.
What does the vagus nerve have to do with aging? Scientists believe that a new form of “tickle” therapy stimulating the nerve may be a game-changer for physical, mental and emotional health as we age.
Before we can discuss how stimulating the vagus nerve can help with aging, we have to start by understanding the autonomic nervous system and its role in aging. The autonomic nervous system is the mastermind behind the processes of the body that are unconsciously carried out every second of every day. The autonomic nervous system manages things such as digestion, blood pressure regulation, even breathing and metabolism. The system itself is broken into two branches, the sympathetic branch (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic branch (rest and digest).
As we age, it’s not unusual for these two branches to become out of balance. Especially as so many of us are spending more and more time in fight or flight mode due to chronic stress. As we age and this balance shifts, we are at higher risk for chronic disease, mental illness and similar concerns.
This is where experts believe vagus nerve stimulation through the ear may be able to help.
The research findings
Research out of the University of Leeds is showing that a new non-invasive procedure called transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS), or a “tickling” of the nerve through painless electrical currents to the ear, could bring the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems back into balance. This procedure, in turn, may reduce not only many of the chronic diseases we develop as we get older but also improve mental and emotional health.
While the idea of vagus nerve stimulation as a way to positively impact the systems of the body isn’t new, the non-invasive approach through the ear is. Previously, this type of procedure required surgery and implants.
This is also not the first time the research team at Leeds has explored tVNS. The team has worked with healthy 30-year-olds in the past.
In this most recent study, researchers worked with a small group of healthy 55-year-olds. Volunteers received tVNS for 15 minutes each day over two weeks. The results showed that parasympathetic activity increased while sympathetic activity decreased, bringing the overall autonomic nervous system back into balance.
“We believe this stimulation can make a big difference to people’s lives, and we’re now hoping to conduct further studies to see if tVNS can benefit multiple disorders,” said Dr Susan Deuchars, one of the senior authors on the study.
While tVNS for healthy aging and autonomic nervous system balance is not yet available to everyone, this latest research does offer hope. In the meantime, there are ways to you can start rebalancing on your own including reducing stress, meditation, exercise and a healthy diet.
Don’t forget to monitor your hearing health as you age. Age-related hearing loss is more common than ever and often related to underlying chronic conditions that are also more frequent as we age. If you have questions about your hearing health or would like to schedule a hearing evaluation to get it checked, contact our office.