Ignoring This Common Problem Could Trigger Dementia

Imagine you've started having trouble hearing. Maybe it's just slight changes, like struggling to follow a conversation with your friends in a busy restaurant. Or you have trouble understanding soft dialogue at the movies. Maybe you keep complaining that your spouse mumbles too much.

Over time, you stop going out as often. It's embarrassing to ask folks to repeat themselves. So, you stay in and slowly lose your social circle. The next thing you know, you start forgetting things. You feel depressed and it's hard to concentrate.

If any of this feels familiar to either yourself or a loved one, then you've experienced the link between hearing loss and dementia.

According to a review from Johns Hopkins, hearing loss is a significant factor in dementia, but it's the least studied.

We know there's a strong association, but few studies have looked for a functional cause-and-effect.

According to the research, hearing loss leads to three key outcomes:

  • Increased cognitive load (brain forced to work harder),
  • Brain structure and function changes, and
  • Decreased social engagement.

All three of these factors can affect the brain and essentially lead to cognitive decline and memory loss seen in dementia.

But last week, a new study provided more evidence of the link.

Researchers from Ohio State University studied a group of participants between ages 18 and 41. Participants listened to sentences of varying levels of complexity. While they listened, the researchers watched their brain activity on a functional MRI.

Those who showed mild hearing impairment actually had to work harder to understand the sentences. The folks with normal hearing only had to engage the left hemisphere of their brain to make sense of the sentence. But those with just mild impairment had to engage both hemispheres.

More worrisome, those using both hemispheres showed activity in the right frontal cortex. That kind of activity for understanding speech usually doesn't happen until people are over 50... Nine years older than the oldest participant.

According to the study authors, this extra brainpower demonstrates that when your ability to hear suffers, your brain has to work more to make up for it. Over time, this strain on parts of the brain not typically used for hearing can take a toll.

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If this study doesn't worry you, it should.

Prior studies have shown that older adults with hearing loss suffer a 30% to 40% higher rate of cognitive decline. And imaging studies show that hearing impairment goes hand in hand with faster deterioration of brain matter.

And it's not just dementia we have to worry about... Many studies also show an association between higher amounts of noise exposure and problems with sleep, increased stress, and impaired brain function. In fact, some studies saw direct changes in DNA expression in animals exposed to aircraft noise.

What happens is that excessive noise triggers a stress response in the nervous system. Stress hormones like cortisol repress insulin, which leads to weight gain over time. It also affects blood vessels and increases inflammation. All three of these responses damage our cardiovascular system. So it's no surprise that hearing loss also taxes our brain cells and possibly leads to dementia.

So how loud is too loud?

Usually, damage to our ears happens with repeated exposure to sounds of 80 decibels (dB) or louder – though some research indicates it can happen even with anything over 60 dB. To put that in perspective, a normal conversation is about 60 dB. City traffic is about 80 dB and sitting in a subway car puts you at 95 dB. And listening to music in earphones turned to peak volume is about 110 to 115 dB.

If you're worried about your hearing, be sure to take the proper steps to protect yourself today. And it's never too early to start. Remember, the University of Ohio study looked at folks as young as 18. So be sure to pass this on to your kids and grandkids, too.

Here are four easy ways to protect your hearing...

1. Headphone use. The National Health Service of the U.K. recommends staying below 60% of the max volume on headphones. In fact, a good solution if you need to tune out surrounding noise is to get some noise-cancelling headphones. And be sure not to use headphones for a long period – take a five-minute break every hour.

2. Ear plugs. Anytime you're around extremely loud equipment or environments, be sure to wear ear protection. That includes things like using a chainsaw, mowing the lawn, or going to a concert. Our editor, Laura, enjoys concerts (which can be 120 decibels) and always packs a pair of good ear plugs. She likes these in particular.

3. Keep your ears clean. Impacted wax is the simplest reason for hearing trouble. If you want to clean your ears, use a damp cloth and maybe a few drops of baby oil to try and break it up. Never shove anything in your ear, including cotton swabs. At best, they'll just push the wax further into the ear canal. At worst, they can puncture the ear drum. If you can't break it up safely, see a specialist (called an otolaryngologist).

4. Get your hearing tested. If you've never had a hearing test, it's a good idea to get a baseline test done and recheck as needed. Be sure to ask about insurance coverage, as some will offer coverage for an evaluation. However, most insurance plans won't cover much for hearing aids. And keep in mind that hearing evaluations held at stores that sell hearing aids often will try to push you to purchase a hearing aid.

A more affordable option – try a phone test to see if you need to go in for a full test. The National Hearing Test is a simple screening test you can take in the privacy of your own home. It involves an $8 fee. You register online, pay, and receive a code to use. Then get on the phone and call the number and punch in your code.

It only takes about 10 minutes and evaluates both ears. The key is to follow up with a doctor within a year if you show signs of any impairment. You can learn more about it right here.

Don't ignore hearing loss or use it as an excuse to skip out on socializing. Have your hearing tested so you can take the proper steps to keep your brain healthy.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
May 29, 2018