September is World Alzheimer’s Month! This international campaign raises awareness about dementia, a group of conditions that impact 50 million people worldwide. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, comprising up to 90% of all dementia people navigate today. Because there are no exact causes or cures for Alzheimer’s, it is important to identify and address risk factors. Prioritizing hearing health and addressing hearing loss is a useful way of protecting your brain health, reducing the risk of cognitive decline.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition that progressively reduces cognitive capabilities related to thinking, learning, decision making, and memory. Alzheimer’s often begins with mild memory loss and can gradually escalate to complete inability to recognize family and friends, engage in conversation, complete tasks, and make decisions. This often leads to personality changes, social withdrawal, and depression. People with late stage Alzheiemr’s may require assistance with daily living because they can no longer navigate independently and safely. Exact causes of Alzheimer’s are unknown but there are factors that can be mitigated to strengthen brain health and reduce the risk of cognitive decline. This includes identifying and treating hearing loss.
Hearing Loss Symptoms
Hearing loss is a permanent medical condition that impacts nearly 48 million people, making it the third most common chronic condition that people experience today. It can be caused by several factors including: environmental exposure to loud noise, aging, existing medical conditions, and head/neck injuries. Impaired hearing reduces ability to perceive and process sound. This produces a range of symptoms including:
- Tinnitus: a buzzing or ringing like noise in one or both ears
- Sounds are muffled or slurred, making it difficult to distinguish words
- Difficulty hearing in places with background noise
- Needing to increase the volume on electronic devices
- Asking others to speak louder, slower, and/or repeat themselves
These symptoms can be mild or profound, disrupting daily life in numerous ways. Strained communication makes it challenging to manage personal and professional responsibilities. Affecting all facets of life, this can take a toll on relationships, social life, and job performance. Additionally, untreated hearing loss can impact overall health in many ways.
Impact of Hearing Loss on Brain Health
Hearing loss also happens in the brain. Parts of the brain responsible for processing sound, including the auditory cortex, are affected by hearing loss which impacts cognitive functions. A 2015 study examined how the brain responds to hearing loss by collecting and analyzing electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings of adults and children with various degrees of hearing loss. Researchers found that:
- there was reduced activity in the hearing portion of the brain
- brain reorganization in areas that process visual patterns
Also referred to as neuroplasticity, this type of brain reorganization involves neural pathways and networks adjusting and changing. This can weaken those areas, leading to reduced cognitive capacity. In addition to this kind of brain atrophy, researchers suggest that social withdrawal – a major outcome of hearing loss – can also impact the brain. Hearing loss symptoms strain communication which makes social engagement and navigating social spaces challenging. This often leads to avoiding interacting with others and isolation not only affects mental health by contributing to loneliness and depression; but it also results in less stimuli for the brain. This reduced engagement also impacts cognitive functions.
The impact of hearing loss on brain health increases the risk of cognitive decline and the development of conditions like Alzheimer’s. Various studies have shown that hearing loss is a risk factor for dementia so treating hearing impairment is an incredibly important intervention.
Hearing Aids Reduce Risk of Alzheimer’s
Hearing aids are the most common treatment for hearing loss. These electronic devices are innovative pieces of technology that absorb and process sound, maximizing hearing capacity. Not only does this significantly improve hearing and communication, but it also enhances brain health. Research has shown that hearing aids improve cognitive functions by supporting the brain with perceiving and processing sound. This reduces the risk of experiencing cognitive decline and transforms daily health and wellness.
You can commit to your hearing health during World Alzheimer’s month by scheduling an appointment for a hearing test. This is the first step of seeking life changing treatment!