The links among various components of our health are not always self evident.
Take high blood pressure as an example. You ordinarily cannot perceive elevated blood pressure, and you wouldn’t feel any different than if it was normal. Internally, however, higher blood pressure can slowly and gradually injure 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 serious consequences develop.
The point is, we usually can’t identify high blood pressure ourselves, and often can’t instantly see the link between high blood pressure and, for example, kidney failure years down the road.
But what we must realize is that every part of our body and aspect of our physiology is in some way related to everything else, and that it is our job to preserve and promote all elements of our health.
The consequences of hearing loss to overall health
As with our blood pressure, we frequently can’t detect small increments of hearing loss as it develops. And we certainly have a more difficult time envisioning the potential link between hearing loss and, say, dementia years later.
And although it doesn’t seem as though hearing loss is directly connected to serious physical disorders and cognitive decline, the science is revealing to us the exact opposite. In the same way that increases in blood pressure can damage 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. Additionally, the study also found that the rate of cognitive decline was higher as the extent of hearing loss increased.
Researchers believe there are three potential explanations for the connection between hearing loss and brain decline:
- Hearing loss can lead to social seclusion and depression, both of which are known risk factors for mental decline.
- Hearing loss forces the brain to transfer resources away from memory and reasoning to the processing of fainter sounds.
- Hearing loss is a symptom of a common underlying injury to the brain that also impairs intellectual ability.
Perhaps it’s a combination of all three, but what’s apparent is that hearing loss is directly connected with declining cognitive function. Reduced 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 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 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 go back to the first example, having high blood pressure can either be devastating to your health or it can be addressed. Diet, exercise, and medication (if required) can lower the pressure and maintain the health and integrity of your arteries.
Hearing loss can similarly create problems or can be attended to. What researchers have found 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 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 steps to enhance our hearing.