The links between 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 over time injure and narrow your arteries.
The effects of damaged arteries can ultimately result in stroke, cardiovascular disease, or kidney disease, which is one of the reasons we have an yearly physical—to uncover the presence of abnormalities before the dangerous consequences develop.
The point is, we usually can’t sense high blood pressure ourselves, and often can’t instantly 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 preserve and enhance all components of our health.
The consequences of hearing loss to overall health
Similar to our blood pressure, we typically can’t perceive small increments of hearing loss as it develops. And we undoubtedly have a more difficult time envisioning the possible link between hearing loss and, say, dementia years later.
And although it doesn’t seem as though hearing loss is immediately connected with dangerous physical disorders and cognitive decline, the science is telling us the exact opposite. Just as increases in blood pressure can injure 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 discovered that those with hearing loss experienced a 30-40 percent faster decline in cognitive function compared to those with normal hearing. Additionally, the study also found that the rate of cognitive decline was higher as the degree of hearing loss increased.
Researchers think that there are three potential explanations for the connection between hearing loss and brain decline:
- Hearing loss can trigger social solitude and depression, both of which are acknowledged risk factors for mental decline.
- Hearing loss causes 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 intellectual functions.
Perhaps it’s a combination 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 operates, and not for the better.
Additional studies by Johns Hopkins University and others have revealed additional connections between hearing loss and depression, memory issues, 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 lead to additional cognitive problems that haven’t yet been studied.
Moving from hearing loss to hearing gain
To return 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 needed) can lower the pressure and preserve the health and integrity of your blood vessels.
Hearing loss can likewise create problems or can be addressed. What researchers have discovered 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 elevated social, mental, and physical health, and the gains in hearing fortify relationships and enrich conversations.
The bottom line is that we not only have a lot to lose with unattended hearing loss—we also have a lot to gain by taking the necessary steps to enhance our hearing.