The links between various aspects of our health are not always self evident.
Consider high blood pressure as one example. You usually cannot perceive 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 consequences of damaged arteries ultimately can lead to stroke, heart disease, or kidney disease, which is one of the reasons we have an yearly physical—to discover the presence of abnormalities before the dangerous consequences set in.
The point is, we often can’t sense high blood pressure ourselves, and often can’t immediately understand the connection between high blood pressure and, for example, kidney failure years down the road.
But what we must recognize is that every part of our body and aspect of our physiology is in some way related to everything else, and that it is our obligation to protect and promote all elements of our health.
The consequences of hearing loss to overall health
Much like our blood pressure, we typically can’t perceive small increments of hearing loss as it develops. And we certainly have a more difficult time imagining the potential link between hearing loss and, say, dementia years later.
And while it doesn’t seem as though hearing loss is directly connected to serious physical disorders and cognitive decline, the science is telling us the exact opposite. Just as increases in blood pressure can injure arteries and cause 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 greater as the severity of hearing loss increased.
Researchers think that there are three possible explanations for the link between hearing loss and brain decline:
- Hearing loss can trigger social solitude and depression, both of which are acknowledged risk factors for mental decline.
- Hearing loss forces the brain to shift 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 intellectual ability.
Possibly it’s a blend of all three, but what’s evident is that hearing loss is directly linked to declining cognitive function. Reduced 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 links between hearing loss and depression, memory problems, a higher risk of falls, and even dementia.
The consequences are all related to brain function and balance, and if the experts are right, hearing loss could likely lead to additional cognitive problems that haven’t yet been investigated.
Moving from hearing loss to hearing gain
To return to the first example, having high blood pressure can either be devastating to your health or it can be taken care of. Diet, exercise, and medication (if needed) can lower the pressure and preserve the health and integrity of your blood vessels.
Hearing loss can likewise create problems or can be dealt with. What researchers have found is that hearing aids can mitigate or reverse the effects of cognitive decline by re-stimulating the brain with enhanced sound.
Improved hearing has been linked with elevated social, mental, and physical health, and the gains in hearing strengthen relationships and improve conversations.
The bottom line is that we not only have much to lose with untreated hearing loss—we also have much to gain by taking the necessary steps to enhance our hearing.