Losing your hearing? You may be losing your mind as well

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Have you ever considered the double standard of how we view hearing loss?

If a young person develops a hearing problem, it’s a cause for great concern. People’s first reaction is to see it as a serious underlying medical condition requiring immediate investigation and hopefully a successful treatment. It’s certainly never treated as a joke.

And yet, if you develop hearing loss later in life, as a society we not only view it as common, expected or normal, we often treat it as a joke. There are thousands comedic instances in literature and television where hearing loss in elderly people is actually the butt of the joke.

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Before you start feeling too guilty, realize society’s viewpoint is understandable. By age 70, the Hearing Loss Association of America estimates that two-thirds of Americans will have suffered some sort of hearing loss. So it is common.

But viewing it as something to be expected or — worse — as a joke is dangerous, because sometimes hearing loss in the elderly is a symptom of a much more serious problem: loss of cognitive abilities or full-on dementia.

In 2011 and 2013, Dr. Frank Lin, an otologist at Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health, conducted studies among 2,000 people averaging around 77 years old. He found the people already suffering hearing loss at the start of the study were about 24 percent more likely to develop cognitive decline over a six-year period than their normal-hearing peers.

“The general perception is that hearing loss is a relatively inconsequential part of aging,” Lin told AARP in 2013. But Lin says the findings of these studies, which have now been replicated many times, suggest hearing plays a much bigger role in brain health that previously thought.

How hearing loss and cognitive ability are connected

In a New York Times article, Lin suggests there are three ways poor hearing and dementia are connected.

The first way involves “cognitive load” — it’s the idea that “when you can’t hear well, the brain receives garbled signals, forcing it to work harder to derive meaning from the message,” according the Times.

“If you put in a lot of effort just to comprehend what you’re hearing, it takes resources that would otherwise be available for encoding (what you hear) in memory,” Brandeis University neuroscience professor Arthur Wingfield told AARP.

That is, increased cognitive load over time reduces the brain’s ability to properly perform all of its normal functions, namely storing memory.

Another way hearing loss and dementia are connected is isolation. Essentially, when people can’t hear well, they struggle to converse with others and their ability to socialize suffers. Conversation stimulates the brain, and without it, cognitive loss is a very real possibility.

Hearing loss also affects the brain structure. MRI studies by Washington University in St. Louis have shown that hearing loss results in a faster rate of brain atrophy in the hearing section of the brain, the part that is also in charge of functions like memory, learning and thinking, according to the Times.

So what can be done to help?

Today there are many ways to treat hearing loss and cognitive decline for people of any age.

But the first step is testing. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends adults get their hearing tested every decade until age 50. Afterward, adults should be tested every three years.

Lin said “hearing loss can occur so gradually that people don’t recognize the problem until it is well advanced.” So there is no reason not to be tested.

If loss is found, hearing aids or cochlear implants can be used to mitigate cognitive damage and even begin to repair some it, provided the individual has not waited too long.

“I have no doubt that if a (cochlear implant) makes it easier for a person to listen, then they will be able to spend more of their brain power to do other cognitively demanding tasks,” University of Toronto psychologist M. Kathleen Pichora-Fuller told AARP.

So if you’re a senior and noticing some hearing loss, or if you’re a grandchild watching a grandparent become hard of hearing, don’t treat it like a normal or expected thing, and certainly don’t treat it as a joke.

Call your local hearing specialist and get tested right away. Hopefully by saving your hearing, you’re also potentially saving your mind.