The links between various components of our health are not always obvious.
Consider high blood pressure as one example. You ordinarily can’t perceive elevated blood pressure, and you wouldn’t feel any different than if it was normal. Internally, however, higher blood pressure can progressively injure and narrow your arteries.
The consequences of narrowed arteries can ultimately result in stroke, heart disease, or kidney disease, which is one of the reasons we have an annual physical—to discover the existence of abnormalities before the dangerous consequences develop.
The point is, we usually can’t sense high blood pressure ourselves, and often can’t instantly understand the link between high blood pressure and, for example, kidney failure many years down the road.
But what we should 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 responsibility to protect and promote all elements of our health.
The consequences of hearing loss to total health
Much like our blood pressure, we commonly can’t detect small increments of hearing loss as it develops. And we undoubtedly have a harder time imagining the potential connection between hearing loss and, say, dementia years down the road.
And even though it doesn’t appear as though hearing loss is directly connected with serious physical disorders and cognitive decline, the science is telling us the exact opposite. Just as increases in blood pressure can damage 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 discovered 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 probable explanations for the link 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 forces the brain to transfer resources away from thinking and memory to the handling of fainter sounds.
- Hearing loss is a symptom of a shared underlying injury to the brain that also impairs cognitive capability.
Possibly it’s a mix of all three, but what’s apparent is that hearing loss is directly connected 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 other institutions have revealed additional connections between hearing loss and depression, memory problems, a higher risk of falls, and even dementia.
The consequences are all associated with brain function and balance, and if the experts are correct, hearing loss could likely lead to additional cognitive problems that haven’t yet been studied.
Moving from hearing loss to hearing gain
To return to the first example, having high blood pressure can either be catastrophic to your health or it can be taken care of. Diet, exercise, and medication (if necessary) can reduce the pressure and maintain the health and integrity of your arteries.
Hearing loss can similarly create problems or can be taken care of. What researchers have discovered is that hearing aids can minimize or reverse the effects of cognitive decline by revitalizing the brain with enhanced sound.
Enhanced 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 a lot to lose with unattended hearing loss—we also have much to gain by taking the steps to enhance our hearing.