The links among various aspects of our health are not always obvious.
Consider high blood pressure as an example. You typically cannot 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 damaged arteries ultimately can result in stroke, heart disease, or kidney disease, which is one of the reasons we have an annual physical—to spot the presence of abnormalities before the serious consequences develop.
The point is, we usually can’t identify high blood pressure ourselves, and often can’t immediately understand the connection between high blood pressure and, for example, kidney failure many years down the road.
But what we must 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 job to protect and promote all aspects of our health.
The consequences of hearing loss to overall health
Much like our blood pressure, we in many cases can’t detect small increments of hearing loss as it develops. And we undoubtedly have a harder time imagining the potential link between hearing loss and, say, dementia years later.
And even though 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 injure arteries and cause circulation problems anywhere in the body, hearing loss can diminish 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 those with normal hearing. And, the study also found that the rate of cognitive decline was greater as the degree of hearing loss increased.
Researchers think that there are three probable explanations for the link between hearing loss and brain decline:
- Hearing loss can lead to social isolation and depression, both of which are acknowledged risk factors for mental decline.
- Hearing loss forces the brain to shift resources away from thinking and memory to the processing of fainter sounds.
- Hearing loss is a symptom of a shared underlying injury to the brain that also impairs intellectual capability.
Perhaps it’s a combination of all three, but what’s clear 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 discovered 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 researchers are right, hearing loss could very likely cause 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 catastrophic to your health or it can be dealt with. Diet, exercise, and medication (if necessary) can lower the pressure and maintain the health and integrity of your blood vessels.
Hearing loss can similarly 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 revitalizing the brain with enhanced sound.
Improved hearing has been linked with elevated 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 untreated hearing loss—we also have much to gain by taking the steps to enhance our hearing.