The Connection Between Healthy Hearing and Brain Health
The connections between various aspects of our health are not always self evident.
Take high blood pressure as one example. You ordinarily cannot detect elevated blood pressure, and you wouldn’t feel any different than if it was normal. Internally, however, higher blood pressure can slowly and gradually damage and narrow your arteries.
The effects of narrowed arteries ultimately can bring about stroke, heart disease, or kidney disease, which is one of the reasons we have an yearly physical—to uncover the existence of abnormalities before the dangerous consequences develop.
The point is, we often can’t sense high blood pressure ourselves, and often can’t instantly see the link between high blood pressure and, for example, kidney failure many years down the road.
But what we must understand is that every part of our body and aspect of our physiology is in some way linked to everything else, and that it is our job to protect and enhance all components of our health.
The consequences of hearing loss to total health
Similar to our blood pressure, we commonly can’t perceive small increments of hearing loss as it develops. And we certainly have a more difficult time imagining the possible link between hearing loss and, say, dementia years down the road.
And while it doesn’t appear as though hearing loss is directly associated with dangerous physical disorders and cognitive decline, the science is revealing to us the exact opposite. Just as increases in blood pressure can damage arteries and cause circulation problems anywhere in the body, hearing loss can diminish stimulation and cause damage to the brain.
In fact, a 2013 study by Johns Hopkins University discovered that those with hearing loss experienced a 30-40 percent faster decline in cognitive function compared to individuals with normal hearing. Additionally, the study also found that the rate of cognitive decline was higher as the severity of hearing loss increased.
Experts believe there are three likely explanations for the link between hearing loss and brain decline:
- Hearing loss can result in social seclusion and depression, both of which are acknowledged risk factors for mental decline.
- Hearing loss causes the brain to transfer resources away from memory and reasoning to the processing of fainter sounds.
- Hearing loss is a symptom of a shared underlying injury to the brain that also impairs cognitive ability.
Perhaps it’s a combination of all three, but what’s apparent is that hearing loss is directly associated with declining cognitive function. Diminished sound stimulation to the brain changes the way the brain operates, and not for the better.
Further studies by Johns Hopkins University and others have revealed further connections between hearing loss and depression, memory problems, a higher risk of falls, and even dementia.
The consequences are all connected to brain function and balance, and if researchers are right, hearing loss could very likely lead to additional cognitive problems that haven’t yet been investigated.
Going from hearing loss to hearing gain
To go back to the initial example, having high blood pressure can either be devastating to your health or it can be addressed. Diet, exercise, and medication (if required) can reduce the pressure and maintain the health and integrity of your arteries.
Hearing loss can likewise create problems or can be addressed. What researchers have observed is that hearing aids can mitigate or reverse the effects of cognitive decline by revitalizing the brain with enhanced sound.
Improved hearing has been associated with greater social, mental, and physical health, and the gains in hearing strengthen relationships and enrich conversations.
The bottom line is that we not only have a lot to lose with unattended hearing loss—we also have a lot to gain by taking the steps to enhance our hearing.