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Hearing loss is a condition that impacts even more than the one in eight Americans who display signs of hearing loss. Our families and communities deal with hearing loss whenever someone they know is suffering from untreated and undiagnosed hearing loss and so the reality of hearing loss is exponential. It’s been shown that hearing loss increases risks of depression, isolation and other debilitating health factors. Certainly, when you are personally experiencing these compounding issues, the negative implications on your vibrant and fulfilling life are immediate.
But beyond the increased emotional and physical risks associated with hearing loss, there is also an elevated correlation with dementia. Fortunately, hearing loss is a treatable condition. And while we can never fully recover our previously healthy levels of hearing, we can use interventions like hearing aids to lessen the likelihood of depression, isolation and even dementia.
Recent recommendations from the Lancet Commission and presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference include addressing behaviors and introducing preventions on 12 risk factors that can delay or prevent a significant number of dementia cases and as many as 40%. Treating hearing loss is one pillar of those recommendations.
Because the US — in addition to countries like England and France — has taken action to address risk factors for dementia, the percentage of older people with dementia has declined in recent years. Globally, dementia currently affects 50 million people, a number that experts believe will increase in the coming years. As we can see by falling trends in cases of dementia among Americans, it does help to educate and embrace preventative measures to guard against dementia because they do in fact work.
Lon Schneider, MD, who presented the findings and acts as a co-director of the USC Alzheimer Disease Research Center’s clinical core and is on faculty at the Keck School of Medicine of USC says that, “We are learning that tactics to avoid dementia begin early and continue throughout life, so it’s never too early or too late to take action.”
Treating hearing loss can prevent cases of dementia
Also listed as a risk factor in 2017 in addition to this year’s inclusion, mid-life hearing loss can increase risk of dementia and addressing hearing loss through intervention is a way to interrupt the danger. Specifically, the Lancet Commission called for policy makers to “Encourage use of hearing aids for hearing loss and reduce hearing loss by protecting ears from high noise levels.”
Many cases of hearing loss in mid-life are the result of the natural aging process, when the delicate cells of our inner ears that act as sensitive sound receptors decline over time. However, a large proportion of cases occur because of noise-related hearing loss. Instead of simply time degenerating the inner ear cells, too-loud noise over time propels a decline in our ability to hear the full range of sound frequencies. Our world is noisy — much noisier than it was when our hearing systems evolved. We often work in noisy environments or engage in too-loud recreational activities without the appropriate sound protection.
Education around protecting our ears and hearing, plus intervening once hearing loss is established can have a profound impact on mental cognition later in life.
How sound information impacts the brain
While our ears are easily recognized as the stars of the show, much of our hearing happens in the brain. We’ve already mentioned the sensitive cells of the inner ear that receive sound information. From there, sound information is transmitted to the brain via the auditory nerve. It is in the brain that the translation from sound information to what we hear as noise and language takes place.
These processing centers of the brain rely upon the sound information to do their job. When that sound information is interrupted or lessened, the processing centers are affected. Dementia is perhaps one outcome of the brain’s response.
Hearing aids can restore vibrancy and ease to communication
Hearing aids can restore some sound information previously silenced due to hearing loss. It may prevent the brain’s hearing processing centers from having to do much reorganization.
Moreover, social isolation was identified as a risk factor and hearing aids can combat the very real repercussions of feelings of isolation associated with hearing loss. When communicating with others becomes difficult or confusing, it is natural to withdraw. When hearing aids improve communication ease, people with hearing loss can continue to have restorative interactions that connect them with their families and social networks. An active lifestyle with greater mobility becomes possible again.