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What’s so Scary about Hearing Loss?

Leesa Burke, MA, FAAA's picture
elderly man with doctor
elderly man with doctor

What is so scary about hearing loss? Everyone gets a little hearing problem as they age, right? Well….yes. Most people do acquire age-related hearing loss, or presbycusis, as they get older. Untreated hearing loss, however, can be a scary thing! Its onset is usually slow and gets worse gradually, making it easy to ignore until much damage is already done.

Research out of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, presents us with evidence of some frightening correlations between hearing loss and its subsequent effect on cognitive brain function.

Published in the February 2012 issue of Archives of Neurology, Frank Lin, M.D. ,Ph.D, concluded that when compared to people with normal hearing, those with mild, moderate, and severe hearing loss had twofold, threefold, and fivefold  the risk of developing dementia over time. The more hearing loss they had, the higher the likelihood of developing the memory-robbing disease.

Although the reasons for the link are not readily known, the suggestion is that the strain of decoding sounds over the years may overwhelm the brains of people with hearing loss, leaving them more vulnerable to dementia. The researchers also speculate that hearing loss could lead to dementia by making individuals more socially isolated, a known risk factor for dementia and other cognitive disorders.  Social isolation, in turn, has been linked to depression.  Isolation has been linked to an increase in inflammation throughout the body, which, in turn can result in age-related disorders like heart disease and dementia, says Dr. Lin.

In another study, Dr. Lin found that people with hearing loss were also nearly three times more likely to have a history of falling. Dr Lin, an epidemiologist and otologist, says among the possible explanations for this link is the hypothesis that people who can’t hear well, might not have a good awareness of their overall environment, making tripping and falling more likely.

What can we do to avoid this frightening phenomenon?

Early intervention, such as routine hearing testing and remediation, may help lessen the cognitive load placed on the brain in the face of untreated hearing loss. If you feel your hearing may be weakened—don’t wait to get it checked out. The preventive measures you take today could prevent seemingly unrelated health problems from developing later down the road. According to Dr. Lin, “Even if people feel as if they are not affected, we’re showing that it may well be a more serious problem.”

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Clinical Supervisor, Audiology at Hebrew SeniorLife

Audiologist Leesa Burke, MA, FAAA, is a Fellow in the American Academy of Audiology and a member of the Massachusetts Speech, Language and Hearing Association. Her special areas of interest include rehabilitative audiology, assistive listening devices and counseling for the hearing impaired and their families. Ms. Burke has been featured in the Boston Globe's Senior Set on hearing loss.

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