From time to time we like to share an article that we feel will help to inform and motivate, especially as it relates to hearing health.
Below is an excerpt from a recent New York Times article by Jane Brody that discusses new findings linking cognitive decline to even minimal hearing loss, suggesting that we could do a lot to protect our brains if we protect our hearing.
t year in a column entitled “Hearing Loss Threatens Mind, Life and Limb,” I summarized the current state of knowledge about the myriad health-damaging effects linked to untreated hearing loss, a problem that afflicts nearly 38 million Americans and, according to two huge recent studies, increases the risk of dementia, depression, falls and even cardiovascular diseases.
Knowing that my own hearing leaves something to be desired, the research I did for that column motivated me to get a proper audiology exam. The results indicated that a well-fitted hearing aid could help me hear significantly better in the movies, theater, restaurants, social gatherings, lecture halls, even in the locker room where the noise of hair dryers, hand dryers and swimsuit wringers often challenges my ability to converse with my soft-spoken friends.
That was six months ago, and I’ve yet to go back to get that recommended hearing aid. Now, though, I have a new source of motivation. A large study has documented that even among people with so-called normal hearing, those with only slightly poorer hearing than perfect can experience cognitive deficits.
That means a diminished ability to get top scores on standardized tests of brain function, like matching numbers with symbols within a specified time period. But while you may never need or want to do that, you most likely do want to maximize and maintain cognitive function: your ability to think clearly, plan rationally and remember accurately, especially as you get older.
While under normal circumstances, cognitive losses occur gradually as people age, the wisest course may well be to minimize and delay them as long as possible and in doing so, reduce the risk of dementia. According to an international analysis published in The Lancet in 2017, preventing or treating hearing loss in midlife has the potential to diminish the incidence of dementia by 9 percent.
Difficulty hearing can impair brain function by keeping people socially isolated and inadequately stimulated by aural input. The harder it is for the brain to process sound, the more it has to work to understand what it hears, depleting its ability to perform other cognitive tasks. Memory is adversely affected as well. Information that is not heard clearly impairs the brain’s ability to remember it. An inadequately stimulated brain tends to atrophy.
New findings on cognitive losses linked to subclinical hearing loss, gleaned from among 6,451 people age 50 or older, suggest that any degree of hearing loss can take a toll.
Currently, the sound level of 25 decibels — the ability to hear a whisper — is used to define the border between normal hearing and mild hearing loss in adults.
But this threshold is really arbitrary. The lead author of the study, Dr. Justin S. Golub, otolaryngologist and researcher at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and his colleagues found that hearing loss is on a continuum that starts with “perfect” hearing at zero decibels (the sound level of a pin drop), with measurable cognitive deficits occurring with every additional loss above zero.
In fact, the researchers demonstrated that the biggest drop in cognitive ability occurs at the slightest level of hearing loss — a decline from zero to the “normal” level of 25 decibels, with smaller cognitive losses occurring when hearing deficits rise from 25 to 50 decibels.
The new findings linking cognitive decline to even minimal hearing loss suggest that we could do a lot to protect our brains if we protect our hearing. The fact that measurable cognitive losses occur at hearing levels below 25 decibels, and that cognition gradually worsens as hearing declines, suggests that protecting against hearing loss should start in childhood.
“In people with very good hearing, we need to be aware of how early changes in hearing affect the brain,” said Dr. Frank Lin, director of the Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Without a doubt, the most important measure to preserve hearing is protection against noise.”