The links between various components of our health are not always obvious.
Consider high blood pressure as one example. You ordinarily can’t 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, cardiovascular disease, or kidney disease, which is one of the reasons we have an annual physical—to discover the existence of abnormalities before the serious consequences set in.
The point is, we usually can’t perceive high blood pressure ourselves, and often can’t immediately 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 duty to protect and promote all elements of our health.
The consequences of hearing loss to total health
Much like our blood pressure, we in many cases can’t detect small increments of hearing loss as it develops. And we certainly have a harder time envisioning the potential link between hearing loss and, say, dementia years down the road.
And although it doesn’t seem as though hearing loss is immediately connected to serious physical disorders and cognitive decline, the science is telling us the exact opposite. Just as 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 greater as the extent of hearing loss increased.
Researchers think that there are three likely explanations for the link between hearing loss and brain decline:
- Hearing loss can trigger social seclusion and depression, both of which are acknowledged risk factors for mental decline.
- Hearing loss causes the brain to shift resources away from memory and thinking to the processing of fainter sounds.
- Hearing loss is a symptom of a common underlying injury to the brain that also impairs cognitive functions.
Perhaps it’s a blend of all three, but what’s evident is that hearing loss is directly associated 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 revealed additional connections between hearing loss and depression, memory problems, a higher risk of falls, and even dementia.
The consequences are all connected to brain function and balance, and if the experts are right, hearing loss could very likely lead to additional cognitive problems that haven’t yet been studied.
Going from hearing loss to hearing gain
To return to the first example, having high blood pressure can either be disastrous to your health or it can be taken care of. Diet, exercise, and medication (if required) can lower the pressure and maintain the health and integrity of your blood vessels.
Hearing loss can similarly create problems or can be attended to. 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 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 a lot to gain by taking the necessary steps to enhance our hearing.