The connections among various aspects of our health are not always obvious.
Take high blood pressure as one 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 damage and narrow your arteries.
The consequences of narrowed arteries can ultimately bring about stroke, cardiovascular disease, or kidney disease, which is one of the reasons we have an yearly physical—to spot the existence of abnormalities before the dangerous consequences set in.
The point is, we usually can’t sense high blood pressure ourselves, and often can’t immediately understand the connection between high blood pressure and, for example, kidney failure years down the road.
But what we should realize is that every part of our body and aspect of our physiology is in some way connected to everything else, and that it is our job to protect and enhance all components of our health.
The consequences of hearing loss to overall health
Much like our blood pressure, we more often than not can’t detect small increments of hearing loss as it develops. And we certainly have a more difficult time envisioning the potential connection between hearing loss and, say, dementia years down the road.
And while it doesn’t seem like hearing loss is immediately 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 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 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 severity of hearing loss increased.
Experts think that there are three likely explanations for the link between hearing loss and brain decline:
- Hearing loss can bring about social isolation and depression, both of which are known risk factors for mental decline.
- Hearing loss forces 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 mixture of all three, but what’s evident is that hearing loss is directly connected with declining cognitive function. Reduced sound stimulation to the brain changes the way the brain functions, and not for the better.
Further studies by Johns Hopkins University and others have discovered additional connections between hearing loss and depression, memory issues, 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 likely lead to additional cognitive problems that haven’t yet been studied.
Going from hearing loss to hearing gain
To go back to the first example, having high blood pressure can either be disastrous to your health or it can be dealt with. 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 discovered 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 elevated 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 a lot to gain by taking the necessary steps to enhance our hearing.