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Reversing the Ugly

In a prior blog, I closed with the following ominous research finding: “Older adults with hearing loss are more likely to develop problems thinking and remembering than older adults whose hearing is normal, according to a new study by hearing experts at Johns Hopkins.” Doesn’t sound good—I agree. So what about people who wear hearing aids? That study is going on now. I closed by asking, “What do you think?”

The study’s lead author, Dr. Frank Lin, told Newsmax: “Compared to individuals with normal hearing, people with mild, moderate, and severe hearing loss, respectively, had a two-, three-, and five-fold increased risk of developing dementia.” In addition, he found that those with hearing problems lost their cognitive skills faster than othersabout 35 percent faster. The worse the hearing loss, the faster the rate of cognitive decline, Dr. Lin found.

This is not a case of “either/or”; it doesn’t mean that if you are hearing impaired, you are necessarily next in line for dementia. The research indicates that, in contrast to the 11 years it took for individuals with normal hearing to show incipient dementia, it took 8 years for those who were hearing impaired. The test noted that the hearing aids worn by some of the subjects did not seem to make a significant difference, despite minor positive effects. Nonetheless, the researchers were quick to point out that a separate study would be needed to determine the effects of hearing aids.

One theory that may help explain the results and put them in context is called cognitive overload. The term refers to the stress and effort an individual puts into listening and deciphering what he or she is hearing, in the process losing the context and flow of what’s being said. In other words, the brain is devoting more effort to processing and reaching a proper interpretation of the sound signal. Watch this short from The New York Times, in which Katherine Bouton, author of Why Shouting Won’t Help: Why I—and 50 Million Other Americans—Can’t Hear You, discusses her own hearing loss experience.

At present, we do not have a consensus about what comes first—the sensory loss/impairment or the brain decline. Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center and co-author of The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program, argues that “this strong link between hearing loss and cognitive decline is due to social isolation and the accompanying stress, but there are steps you can take to help yourself or a loved one.”

We now know that, in some cases, correction makes a world of difference. Have you ever seen this short but miraculous video? My point here is to show how correcting hearing loss can instill alertness and wonder in this case in a child. There is little doubt that correcting sensory deprivation will, at the very least, improve your life and very probably delay a further decline.

New data about the plasticity of brain function is creating a new awareness. The recent thinking falls into the “use it or lose it” domain. Much new data indicates that the brain must be exercised to maintain normal functioning. Although this has come as a surprise to many, it shouldn’t have, since we know that a sedentary lifestyle leads to increased risk of death and that regular exercise leads to healthy body function and even a reversal of some conditions.

Now we are finding out that physical exercise also leads to healthier mental function. An increasing body of scientific work has reversed thinking about the “aging brain.” In the past, it was thought that after growing and peaking in the late teens, the brain settled down and, over time, lost neurons, which couldn’t be replaced. New research has completely upended our thinking. We now know that new “brain matter”—neurons and inter-neuron communications—can bloom if we exercise our brains. That includes both physical and intellectual activity.

How does this new understanding relate to treating hearing loss or to reversing its effects on dementia? First and foremost, treat hearing issues. Don’t think, “I am old and it won’t matter” or “I hear what I need to hear.” Both are false. In fact, what you don’t hear is often what you most need to hear.