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When thinking about hearing ability, the first thing that comes to mind is obviously, ears. Up until the last decade or so, hearing loss was considered just that, a condition of the ears. However, we now know that it goes far beyond the ear and is deeply connected to the brain. So, when thinking about hearing loss, what should come to mind is the ear-brain connection! After years of research in both the audiological and neurological fields, there is now an abundance of evidence proving that hearing loss has a significant impact on the brain. This is why hearing care is now considered brain care!
About a year ago, the medical journal, The Lancet, published research by the Mayo Clinic revealing that the number one modifiable risk factor for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s is untreated hearing loss (Livingston et al., 2020) Read that again. How amazing is it to know that catching and treating hearing loss in its early stages can also prevent the early onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s? Considering that 20% of the global population has hearing loss (according to 2023 data from the World Health Organization), that is a significant discovery that impacts the world at large.
There are several theories that researchers are testing as to why this connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline runs so deep. One theory hypothesizes that it is due to the brain’s cognitive load. When hearing loss goes untreated, the brain becomes over-stimulated by constantly straining to understand speech and sound. Simply put, an over-whelmed and over-worked brain cannot work as effectively, which has detrimental effects on other functions of the brain. Another theory is related to the brain structure itself. When brain cells are not stimulated, they can actually shrink. This includes the auditory processing centers of the brain. Additionally, there is a psychosocial component to hearing loss to consider, which is social isolation. Struggling to hear and understand others has a major impact on socialization. Unfortunately, many chose to retreat altogether from social situations because it is either too exhausting or too embarrassing to keep up with conversations.
So, what can be done? The answer is two-fold; being proactive about routine hearing checks and investing in early intervention. Having routine hearing checks, especially if one frequents loud environments or has a family history of hearing loss, is wise to establish a baseline and monitor any potential hearing decline. When hearing loss is detected and treated early, the outcomes with hearing aids are usually more successful. The connection between hearing loss and memory loss elevates the stakes of waiting to treat hearing loss. Hearing aids, such as the Starkey Genesis, have a wide range of features and artificial intelligence to better assist the wearer to reduce listening effort. In fact, the processor is so advanced that it makes up to 80 million micro adjustments every hour to deliver clearer, and more natural sounding hearing. Just think of how much listening effort and by connection, cognitive load this can alleviate!
The fact of the matter is, we hear with our ears but process sound with our brain. This ear-brain connection is one of the most significant discoveries that has impacted people in global proportions. With hearing loss being the number one modifiable risk factor for slowing cognitive decline, and over 1.5 billion people around the world experiencing hearing loss, this should be an invitation to everyone to be proactive about hearing care. This is especially important for those who are already at risk for developing hearing loss or Alzheimer’s Disease. If you or a loved fall into this category, are ready to pursue preventative care, or have questions about the ear-brain connection, please come see us! Our providers and staff are knowledgeable and have years of experience treating hearing loss, and even have a certified dementia practitioner on staff. It would be our pleasure to partner with you on your hearing health care journey!
Livingston, G., et al. (2020, August 8). Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. The Lancet. https://www.thelancet.com/article/S0140-6736(20)30367-6/fulltext. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30367-6
World Health Organization. (2023, February 27). Deafness and hearing loss. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/deafness-and-hearing-loss
NW Oklahoma City: CALL 405-775-9875
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Dr. Pam Matthews, Audiologist
Pro Hearing, LLC
9409 N May Avenue and 10404 S Pennsylvania Ave
Oklahoma City, OK