Most of us tend to think that hearing happens in the ears, but in fact, it happens in our brains. The sense of hearing is our fastest, even faster than our sense of vision, believe it or not! Here’s how our sense of hearing works: our outer ears pick up sound waves, which then travel through your ear canal. Your ear drums turn these waves into vibrations, which then make their way to the inner ear, where they are turned into electric signals that sent to the brain via the auditory nerve to be processed as sounds we recognize.
When a person experiences hearing loss, the interruptions and malfunctions in the auditory process interfere with the brain’s ability to register and recognize sounds. As a result, it should come as no surprise that hearing loss affects brain function. Studies from the past few years have indicated that there is a link between a risk for dementia and untreated hearing loss.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University Link Dementia & Hearing Loss
“The general perception is that hearing loss is a relatively inconsequential part of aging,” says Dr. Frank Lin, an otologist and epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Studies that Dr. Lin and his team have conducted in the past few years show something quite the opposite. Untreated hearing loss, especially when linked to the aging process, could actually cause a heavier cognitive load for our brains and put us at risk for dementia.
It is natural for our brain tissue mass to decrease as we age, but untreated hearing loss adds more strain to our brains, causing it to carry a heavier cognitive load. After tracking the cognitive abilities for 2,000 older adults (with the average age of 77) over six years, Dr. Lin and his team found that 24% of test subjects were at higher risk for diminished cognitive decline, compared to subjects with normal hearing.
In another study, Dr. Lin and his team tracked 639 test subjects with normal, healthy cognitive ability for a span of 12 to 18 years. Throughout this time, participants took regular hearing tests and cognitive tests. Over the course of the study, researchers found that the worse the subject’s initial hearing was, the worse their cognitive abilities were through the course of the study. In other words, the cognitive load placed on the brain due to untreated hearing loss actually increased the risk for developing dementia.
The Link Between Hearing Loss and Dementia
In addition to the impact of untreated hearing loss on our cognitive abilities, there are far-reaching consequences for not seeking treatment. People with hearing loss tend to have heightened stress, anxiety, depression, and social isolation. These are all triggers for dementia – especially social isolation amongst older adults.
In the US, one in three people over the age of 65 experience some degree of hearing loss. That number rises to 50% of people over the age of 75 and 80% of people over the age of 85. Hearing loss is a condition that interferes with communication, which causes people to slowly withdraw from friends and family and over time, isolate themselves completely rather than deal with difficulties in conversation.
It is important to keep in mind though, that untreated hearing loss does not necessarily lead to dementia. According to Dr. Lin: “I have a 92-year-old grandmother who’s had a moderately severe hearing loss for many years now. She’s sharp as a tack. I was talking to her about my research and she looks at me and says, ‘Are you telling me I’m definitely going to get dementia?’ I said, ‘Not by any means.’” He stresses that “simply being at increased risk does not mean a person is certain to develop dementia.”
At the same time, it is important to seek treatment for hearing loss, as its far-reaching affects could harm many different areas of our lives, from our interpersonal relationships to our earning power on the job.
Visit Us at Ear to Hear
If you’ve noticed changes in your hearing, don’t wait until it’s too late! Commit to better hearing health and overall health by taking a hearing test and seeking treatment for hearing loss. At Ear to Hear Online, we offer free hearing tests and hearing aid fittings. Contact us today at our locations in Florida, Missouri, and Illinois for more information.