The connections among various components of our health are not always obvious.
Consider high blood pressure as one 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 effects of damaged arteries can ultimately result in stroke, heart disease, or kidney disease, which is one of the reasons we have an yearly physical—to uncover the existence of abnormalities before the dangerous consequences develop.
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 many 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 connected 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 more often than not can’t perceive small increments of hearing loss as it develops. And we certainly have a more difficult time imagining the possible link between hearing loss and, say, dementia years down the road.
And although it doesn’t seem like hearing loss is immediately connected to dangerous 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 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 acquired 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.
Experts think that there are three potential explanations for the link between hearing loss and brain decline:
- Hearing loss can bring about social solitude and depression, both of which are acknowledged risk factors for mental decline.
- Hearing loss forces the brain to transfer 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 cognitive ability.
Perhaps it’s a mix of all three, but what’s clear 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.
Further studies by Johns Hopkins University and other institutions have revealed further 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 researchers are correct, hearing loss could likely cause additional cognitive problems that haven’t yet been investigated.
Going from hearing loss to hearing gain
To return to the initial example, having high blood pressure can either be catastrophic to your health or it can be dealt with. Diet, exercise, and medication (if needed) can lower the pressure and preserve the health and integrity of your arteries.
Hearing loss can likewise create problems or can be dealt with. 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.
Enhanced hearing has been linked with elevated social, mental, and physical health, and the gains in hearing strengthen relationships and improve conversations.
The bottom line is that we not only have much to lose with unattended hearing loss—we also have much to gain by taking the necessary steps to enhance our hearing.