Once upon a time, we thought hearing loss was simply an annoyance. Many people lost a significant amount of their hearing ability, especially as they aged. Some got hearing aids to try to hear better, while some found the hearing aids more annoying than the hearing loss and opted out of treatment. We might say in this case, ignorance is NOT bliss!
In recent decades, study after study has confirmed that hearing loss is not an isolated affliction, but has wide-ranging effects on the brain and body. Hearing loss can also be indicative of other underlying health concerns, which frequent testing can help predict before they erupt. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons that treating hearing loss is an investment in your health:
Early Predictor of Heart Disease
A study by Harvard University found that those with a higher-than-normal degree of hearing loss for their age are 54% more likely to suffer heart disease. Now, hearing aids will not protect you from a heart attack, but hearing tests will determine whether you are experiencing age-related hearing loss at a normal rate or faster than usual. If your hearing loss is progressing faster, you will want to take action to protect yourself against heart disease. Steps might include the adoption of an anti-inflammatory diet such as the Alternate Mediterranean diet (AMED) or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH).
The connection here seems to be related to inflammation. Throughout the body, prolonged inflammation will cause damage to bodily systems. In the ears, it restricts blood flow to the delicate cilia inside the cochlea, which convert mechanical sound energy into electrical energy. Because these tiny, hair-like cells are so delicate, they begin to die after a relatively short amount of time compared to, say, your cardiovascular system. While, unfortunately, the cilia do not grow back, switching to an anti-inflammatory diet will slow the further progress of hearing loss while also protecting you against heart disease and other inflammation-related health problems.
Many people who are new to hearing loss assume that the fatigue they feel in social situations or when listening to speech is a separate issue. In fact, hearing aids will help greatly with this. The reason hearing loss increases fatigue has to do with the way our brains work. Under normal circumstances, our auditory cortex does the work of interpreting the sounds of speech and presenting them for analysis by the frontal cortex. With hearing loss, the frontal cortex has to make up for the loss of information coming from the ears, trying to determine what is being said from bits and pieces of information. All this extra work for our frontal cortex causes confusion as we struggle to try to understand what is being said at the same time as we try to make sense of it, and it causes the frontal cortex to work twice as hard as normal. That’s exhausting! But hearing aids will let our auditory cortex get back to work and leave our frontal cortex free to do the heavy-duty thinking.
Avoiding Brain Atrophy and Cognitive Decline
As our ears send less information to our auditory cortex, it actually begins to atrophy. Over time, we actually lose the ability to interpret the spoken word. Some people who get hearing aids after a long period of untreated hearing loss will claim that “they don’t do anything;” that’s because their auditory cortex has atrophied and left them incapable of understanding speech even once they can hear it.
Many hearing healthcare centers will offer training courses for those who are new to hearing aids to help them regain the ability to comprehend human speech. If you or someone you know is at this phase of hearing loss, it’s important that you make an appointment for a hearing test now and start the path toward regaining your ability to hear.
Over a longer period of time, this atrophy may also lead to earlier onset of dementia and cognitive decline. A study at Johns Hopkins University found that those with untreated hearing loss were 24% more likely to experience cognitive decline over a six-year period than those with normal hearing. A different study conducted at Brigham and Women’s Hospital made use of data on the subjective experience of around 10,000 people. Among men over 62, those who had hearing loss were more likely to report being worried that the quality of their memory was in decline.