Many of us are resigned to the idea that with aging comes hearing loss. It’s unavoidable, but not much more than an annoyance, right? Especially when compared to the far bigger concerns we have about getting older like developing Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. But the fact is a growing body of research supports the theory that when left untreated, hearing loss can contribute to functional impairments like Alzheimer’s disease. Many studies conclude with admonishments to get our hearing tested, and if a loss is identified, treat it sooner rather than later.
What is the connection? For one, individuals with untreated hearing loss have to exert far greater mental effort to hear and understand than their peers with perfect hearing. This increase in “cognitive load” means their brains have to dedicate more resources to hearing and processing sounds, leaving fewer available to handle other important functions — like language and memory.
Another area of interest is the portion of the brain usually dedicated to activities like hearing and understanding what others say (the auditory cortex). The longer hearing loss goes unaddressed the more of this area atrophies. Researchers have come to believe that this same region also plays an important part in creating memories and sensory integration, and its decline likely contributes to loss of cognitive function. One study even found that those with poor hearing were losing precious “gray matter” volume in their auditory cortex — their brains were actually shrinking.
Hearing loss tends to leave us isolated from others, including friends and family. Think of someone you know who has it, such as a grandparent or parent. How often do they go out socially? Have you noticed they don’t want to talk on the phone like they used to? Social events and family get-togethers are much harder to enjoy when spent asking others to repeat themselves or sitting in silence unable to keep up with the surrounding conversation. It’s not surprising that those who can’t hear well have a significant tendency to isolate themselves. The concern from a dementia/Alzheimer’s risk perspective is that lack of social stimulation has been linked by multiple studies to a marked decline in cognitive health.
While the jury is still out on whether a common process or condition contributes to both hearing and cognitive losses, we know enough to be confident that hearing loss and mental function interrelate. This means it’s in our best interests to treat hearing loss, rather than ignore or work around it. Hearing aids alone might not be able to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, but they are known to help people remain active intellectually, physically, and socially, all of which have a positive impact on mental health.
Although treating hearing loss is a good idea, avoiding it is even better. The following are five simple life changes all of us can make to improve our hearing health. They are also considered important preventative measures for avoiding the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Exercise regularly: Even if it’s only a brisk daily walk it can significantly improve physical health by maintaining the cardiovascular system. Increasing blood flow to the brain keeps it from deteriorating while also keeping the delicate hair cells responsible for hearing in the inner ear strong and functioning. A lack of adequate blood supply to these hair cells can cause them to wither and die, resulting in permanent hearing loss.
Eat right: Consume fewer “empty” calories like fried foods or sugary treats. Instead, increase the intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Clogged arteries slow blood flow to the brain, potentially leading to dementia and other serious health woes. Research indicates that diets emphasizing low-fat and vegetable-based foods can help stave off Alzheimer’s disease. Meanwhile, the same nutritious eating habits promote a healthy cardiovascular system and help you avoid developing diabetes, both of which are known contributors to hearing loss.
Stay social: Social stimulation is vital to maintaining a healthy brain. While it’s understandable that someone struggling to keep up with conversations can quickly become tired and frustrated, avoiding social interactions is a recipe for cognitive decline. It has also been linked to depression, another potential contributor to dementia. Rather than avoiding situations that might exacerbate hearing difficulties, address the hearing loss itself.
Keep learning: In many ways, the human brain is a “muscle” that requires exercise in order to function at peak efficiency. Stimulate it by doing crossword puzzles, reading, or learning new skills like how to play a new instrument or by learning a new language. Hearing well exercises the brain and reduces the need to divert important resources from thinking and memory. It also supports linguistic ability and effective communication, which when used regularly reduces the struggle to find the right word or express ideas clearly.
Improve hearing: The bottom line: it’s important to address any hearing loss, even mild, as soon as it is detected. A hearing care professional can test for hearing loss and offer treatment recommendations, including hearing aids. Avoiding the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia is a goal we can all agree is worth pursuing. Taking proactive steps to treat hearing loss is one of the few, but significant actions we can take to preserve our mental acuity for as long as possible.