The connections between various components of our health are not always obvious.
Take high blood pressure as an example. You normally can’t 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 ultimately can bring about stroke, cardiovascular disease, or kidney disease, which is one of the reasons we have an yearly physical—to spot the existence of abnormalities before the serious consequences set in.
The point is, we often can’t detect high blood pressure ourselves, and often can’t immediately understand the connection between high blood pressure and, as an example, kidney failure many 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 obligation to protect and promote all aspects of our health.
The consequences of hearing loss to total health
As with our blood pressure, we often can’t perceive small increments of hearing loss as it develops. And we undoubtedly have a harder time imagining the possible link between hearing loss and, say, dementia years down the road.
And while it doesn’t seem as though hearing loss is immediately connected with 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 acquired a 30-40 percent faster decline in cognitive function compared to individuals with normal hearing. And, the study also found that the rate of cognitive decline was higher as the extent of hearing loss increased.
Experts think that there are three likely explanations for the connection between hearing loss and brain decline:
- Hearing loss can result in social solitude and depression, both of which are acknowledged risk factors for mental decline.
- Hearing loss causes the brain to shift resources away from memory and reasoning to the handling of fainter sounds.
- Hearing loss is a symptom of a common underlying injury to the brain that also impairs intellectual functions.
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 functions, and not for the better.
Additional studies by Johns Hopkins University and other institutions have discovered additional links between hearing loss and depression, memory issues, 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.
Moving from hearing loss to hearing gain
To go back to the first example, having high blood pressure can either be catastrophic to your health or it can be dealt with. Diet, exercise, and medication (if required) can lower the pressure and preserve the health and integrity of your arteries.
Hearing loss can similarly create problems or can be addressed. What researchers have found is that hearing aids can minimize or reverse the effects of cognitive decline by re-stimulating the brain with enhanced sound.
Enhanced hearing has been linked with greater social, mental, and physical health, and the gains in hearing fortify relationships and enrich conversations.
The bottom line is that we not only have a lot to lose with untreated hearing loss—we also have a lot to gain by taking the steps to enhance our hearing.