The links between various aspects of our health are not always obvious.
Take high blood pressure as one 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 damage and narrow your arteries.
The consequences of narrowed arteries can ultimately lead to stroke, cardiovascular 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 perceive high blood pressure ourselves, and often can’t immediately understand the link between high blood pressure and, as an example, kidney failure many 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 interconnected to everything else, and that it is our job to preserve and enhance all components of our health.
The consequences of hearing loss to total health
Similar to our blood pressure, we in many cases can’t detect small increments of hearing loss as it develops. And we undoubtedly have a more difficult time imagining the potential connection between hearing loss and, say, dementia years later.
And even though it doesn’t seem as though hearing loss is directly linked to serious physical disorders and cognitive decline, the science is telling us the exact opposite. In the same way that 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 discovered that those with hearing loss experienced a 30-40 percent faster decline in cognitive function compared to those with normal hearing. And, the study also found that the rate of cognitive decline was greater as the extent of hearing loss increased.
Researchers think that there are three likely explanations for the link between hearing loss and brain decline:
- Hearing loss can bring about social seclusion and depression, both of which are known risk factors for mental decline.
- Hearing loss forces the brain to shift resources away from memory and thinking to the processing 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 mixture of all three, but what’s evident 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 discovered additional connections 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 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 initial example, having high blood pressure can either be devastating to your health or it can be taken care of. Diet, exercise, and medication (if required) can reduce the pressure and maintain the health and integrity of your blood vessels.
Hearing loss can likewise create problems or can be taken care of. 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.
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 untreated hearing loss—we also have much to gain by taking the necessary steps to enhance our hearing.