The links among various components of our health are not always obvious.
Take high blood pressure as an example. You usually can’t detect elevated blood pressure, and you wouldn’t feel any different than if it was normal. Internally, however, higher blood pressure can over time damage and narrow your arteries.
The consequences of damaged arteries can ultimately bring about stroke, cardiovascular disease, or kidney disease, which is one of the reasons we have an yearly physical—to discover the existence of abnormalities before the serious consequences set in.
The point is, we usually can’t identify high blood pressure ourselves, and often can’t instantly see the connection between high blood pressure and, for 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 preserve 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 definitely have a harder time envisioning the possible connection between hearing loss and, say, dementia years down the road.
And while it doesn’t seem like 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 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 individuals 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 potential 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 causes the brain to shift 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 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.
Additional studies by Johns Hopkins University and other institutions have discovered further 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 researchers are right, hearing loss could likely lead to additional cognitive problems that haven’t yet been studied.
Going from hearing loss to hearing gain
To go back to the initial example, having high blood pressure can either be catastrophic to your health or it can be addressed. 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 attended to. What researchers have discovered is that hearing aids can mitigate or reverse the effects of cognitive decline by revitalizing the brain with enhanced sound.
Improved hearing has been associated with greater social, mental, and physical health, and the gains in hearing fortify relationships and improve 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.