The links among various aspects of our health are not always obvious.
Consider high blood pressure as one example. You usually can’t perceive elevated blood pressure, and you wouldn’t feel any different than if it was normal. Internally, however, higher blood pressure can gradually damage and narrow your arteries.
The effects of narrowed arteries ultimately can bring about 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 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 many years down the road.
But what we must recognize 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 preserve and promote all components of our health.
The consequences of hearing loss to total health
Much like our blood pressure, we typically can’t perceive small increments of hearing loss as it develops. And we certainly have a harder time envisioning the potential connection between hearing loss and, say, dementia years later.
And although it doesn’t appear as though hearing loss is immediately linked to dangerous physical disorders and cognitive decline, the science is telling 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 individuals with normal hearing. And, the study also found that the rate of cognitive decline was greater as the extent of hearing loss increased.
Experts believe there are three probable explanations for the link between hearing loss and brain decline:
- Hearing loss can result in social solitude and depression, both of which are known 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 cognitive ability.
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.
Additional studies by Johns Hopkins University and other institutions have discovered additional links 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 correct, 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 initial example, having high blood pressure can either be disastrous to your health or it can be dealt with. Diet, exercise, and medication (if needed) can reduce the pressure and preserve the health and integrity of your arteries.
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 revitalizing 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 unattended hearing loss—we also have a lot to gain by taking the necessary steps to enhance our hearing.