Ok, so I’ve taken a few liberties in choosing the title of this article, but you’ll see the connection by the end. This article is really about the impact of untreated hearing loss on the brain. We see folks every day in our clinic who are excellent candidates for amplification, but for a variety of different reasons choose not to treat their hearing loss. Most of us know that hearing loss can lead to isolation, depression, and other mental issues. Recent research at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has linked some other serious risks with untreated hearing loss that you might not know about. They have been studying hearing loss in around 2000 people for nearly 15 years and the results are kind of frightening if you ask me! The silver lining is that hearing loss can be treated. Without further ado, I’d like to present to you the findings of several related studies conducted at Johns Hopkins in the area of untreated hearing loss:
Results of a study on the link between untreated hearing loss and cognitive decline have shown that older adults with hearing loss are more likely to develop problems thinking and remembering than those with normal hearing. Adults with hearing loss in this study saw cognitive abilities decline 30 - 40% faster. The researchers explained that the decreased cognitive abilities occur because the brain has to devote too much energy to processing sound, rather than contributing it towards memory and other cognitive processes. In other words, if you are struggling to hear things all the time, your brain will have to compensate by diverting energy from other processes.
A parallel study linked untreated hearing loss to having poorer physical and mental health. The individuals in this study with an untreated hearing loss were 36% more likely to have prolonged stretches of illness or injury and 57% more likely to have deep episodes of stress, depression, or bad moods.
Brain Tissue Loss
Brain shrinkage is something that occurs naturally in all adults through the aging process. However, results of one study show that brain tissue loss and shrinkage happen at an accelerated rate in adults with untreated hearing loss.
Research on older adults has shown that untreated hearing loss causes a significant increased risk for developing dementia. The possible reasons for the link between the two are like those with general cognitive decline. In other words, having to strain to process sound over many years may strain the brain and lead individuals to be more vulnerable to dementia.
A similar study by the same researchers show that adults aged 40 to 69 were 3 times more likely to lose their balance and fall. This is a huge area of intrigue in health care, as injuries from falls are estimated to cost the United States billions of dollars each year. Again, the researchers suggest that the extra strain put on the brain by untreated hearing loss may divert energy from the vestibular system (also in the inner ear), which is integral to maintaining balance.
I do think this is some scary stuff, but it is important to consider the cost of not doing anything with regard to hearing loss. It suffices to say that treating hearing loss helps to keep the brain functioning at optimal levels. So back to my original title, hearing aids can make you smarter!