Latest posts by Leanne E. Polhill, LHAS, BC-HIS, BA (see all)
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This September is World Alzheimer’s Month, which helps connect people to resources and awareness around Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. More and more, research is finding that our cognitive health is connected to our hearing health and untreated hearing loss can exacerbate cognitive decline. Untreated hearing loss make a person 1.3 more times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than a person with healthy hearing.
Why is hearing loss so intertwined with cognitive health? Though the answer comes from understanding how the auditory system works -and what can happen when our hearing is compromised.
The Nature of Hearing Loss
The auditory system is intricate and many factors can contribute to a person’s hearing loss. Permanent hearing loss most commonly occurs when the delicate hair cells of the inner ear are damaged. Our hair cells work like sensors for sound waves. They are sensitive to the minute vibrations of sound waves and send audio signals to the brain to be interpreted.
We are born with a finite number of hair cells in our inner ears. The cells are unable to replicate or repair themselves, so if a hair cell becomes damaged it can never recover and it cannot replace itself with a new hair cell. This means that the number of functioning hair cells we possess will decline over the course of our lifetime, weakening our ability to hear sound. While each lost hair cell creates a gap in our hearing, losing a number of hair cells will result in noticeable hearing loss.
Significant hearing loss means that not all incoming sounds are being detected, and the noise signals that are sent to our brain for interpretation are incomplete. Comprehending the meaning from incoming sound signals becomes more difficult to accomplish. Like trying to complete a crossword puzzle with only half the clues, the brain has to work harder to find the meaning in sound -with less reliable results.
The Adapting Brain
Hearing loss changes the way our brain handles incoming sound. The mind prioritizes sensory information like sound, so when hearing loss challenges our comprehension the mind redistributes extra resources towards the task. This redistribution of brain activity constantly pulls attention from other cognitive jobs, which can have hard consequences in the short and long term.
When focus is taken away from our balance and coordination, for instance, it is far likelier we will experience a fall or accidental injury. In fact, the risk of falling accidents is far higher amongst people with untreated hearing loss. This can be a rapid effect of the strain hearing loss places on cognitive functioning.
The brain’s efforts to work around hearing loss require constant overtaxing of the mind’s resources. Hearing can become physically exhausting, and the established neural patterns of the mind may become rearranged. It has been observed that new areas of the brain will become involved in hearing, while the original hearing patterns of the brain atrophy. Over time, the constant cognitive strain that hearing loss creates may be what accelerates the onset of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other cognitive deterioration. While compensating for hearing loss requires more and more mental resources, the balance of cognitive activity becomes more and more skewed.
Alzheimer’s and Your Health
There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease, although medical studies have furthered our understanding of the disease by leaps and bounds in the past few decades. Currently, medical research is the most direct path to finding effective treatment. Alzheimer’s Disease International, the sponsor of World Alzheimer’s Month has educational resources available to help raise awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The CDC has helpful links if you are interested in getting involved with current research.
Your Hearing Matters
Treating your hearing loss can help encourage healthy cognition. A recent French study found that while participants with untreated hearing loss experienced cognitive challenges, those who treated their hearing loss with hearing aids found it promoted healthy cognitive patterns.
When you have questions about your hearing, Encore Hearing can help. Our hearing specialists can help you meet hearing challenges every step of the way, from hearing testing to fitting and programming hearing aids. We pride ourselves in our exceptional customer care and our commitment to helping you hear your very best. Don’t wait on your hearing health- set up an appointment with Encore Hearing today.