The links among various aspects of our health are not always obvious.
Consider high blood pressure as an example. You typically 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 consequences of narrowed arteries can ultimately result in stroke, cardiovascular disease, or kidney disease, which is one of the reasons we have an annual physical—to spot the existence of abnormalities before the dangerous consequences set in.
The point is, we usually can’t sense high blood pressure ourselves, and often can’t instantly understand the connection between high blood pressure and, for example, kidney failure years down the road.
But what we should recognize 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 preserve and enhance all elements of our health.
The consequences of hearing loss to total health
Similar to our blood pressure, we frequently can’t detect small increments of hearing loss as it develops. And we certainly have a more difficult time imagining the possible connection between hearing loss and, say, dementia years down the road.
And although it doesn’t seem like hearing loss is directly connected to dangerous physical disorders and cognitive decline, the science is telling us the exact opposite. Just as increases in blood pressure can injure arteries and cause circulation problems anywhere in the body, hearing loss can reduce stimulation and cause damage to the brain.
In fact, a 2013 study by Johns Hopkins University found that those with hearing loss experienced a 30-40 percent faster decline in cognitive function compared to those with normal hearing. Additionally, the study also found that the rate of cognitive decline was higher as the extent of hearing loss increased.
Researchers think that there are three potential explanations for the link between hearing loss and brain decline:
- Hearing loss can lead to social isolation and depression, both of which are known risk factors for mental decline.
- Hearing loss forces the brain to transfer resources away from memory and thinking to the handling 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 clear is that hearing loss is directly linked to declining cognitive function. Diminished sound stimulation to the brain changes the way the brain operates, and not for the better.
Additional studies by Johns Hopkins University and others have revealed further connections between hearing loss and depression, memory issues, a higher risk of falls, and even dementia.
The consequences are all related to brain function and balance, and if researchers are correct, hearing loss could very likely lead to additional cognitive problems that haven’t yet been investigated.
Going from hearing loss to hearing gain
To return to the initial example, having high blood pressure can either be devastating to your health or it can be dealt with. Diet, exercise, and medication (if necessary) can reduce the pressure and maintain the health and integrity of your blood vessels.
Hearing loss can likewise create problems or can be attended to. What researchers have observed 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 associated with elevated social, mental, and physical health, and the gains in hearing fortify relationships and enrich 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 steps to enhance our hearing.