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September is World Alzheimer’s Month, which helps people find resources and learn more about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. More and more research shows that our mental health is linked to how well we hear and that untreated hearing loss can speed up mental decline. Alzheimer’s disease is 1.3 times more likely to happen to someone with hearing loss if they don’t get it fixed.
Why does hearing loss have such a strong link to mental health? The answer comes from knowing how our hearing system works and what can happen when it doesn’t work well.
How we lose our hearing
The auditory system is complicated, and several things can cause hearing loss. The most common cause of permanent hearing loss is damage to the inner ear’s delicate hair cells. Our hair cells pick up sound waves like microphones. They can pick up on the tiny vibrations of sound waves and send audio signals to the brain so that it can figure out what they mean.
In our inner ears, we are born with a set number of hair cells. The cells can’t make copies of themselves or fix themselves, so a damaged hair cell can never get better and can’t be replaced by a new hair cell. This means that the number of hair cells that work will go down throughout our lives, making it harder for us to hear sounds. Each lost hair cell leaves a hole in our hearing, and if we lose a lot of hair cells, we will noticeably lose our hearing.
When we have a lot of hearing loss, not all sounds we hear are picked up, and the noise signals sent to our brains are interpreted incomplete. It gets harder to figure out the meaning of incoming sound signals. The brain must work harder to figure out what sounds mean, like trying to finish a crossword puzzle with only half of the clues. The results are also less reliable.
How our brain changes due to hearing loss
The way our brain deals with sounds changes when we lose our hearing. The mind gives more weight to sensory information like sound, so when hearing loss makes it hard to understand, the mind moves more resources to the task at hand. This constant shifting of brain activity takes attention away from other cognitive tasks, which can have complex short-term and long-term effects.
When we ignore our balance and coordination, we are much more likely to trip or hurt ourselves by accident. People with untreated hearing loss are much more likely to trip and fall. This can happen quickly when hearing loss makes it hard for the brain to work.
For the brain to work around hearing loss, it has to keep using more and more of its resources. Hearing can be physically tiring, and it can also change the way the brain’s neural patterns work. New parts of the brain become involved in hearing, while the parts of the brain that used to be involved in hearing lose their ability to do so. Hearing loss may speed up the onset of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other forms of mental decline because it puts a constant strain on the brain. As hearing loss makes it take more and more mental energy to deal with, the balance of mental activity becomes more and more off.
Your hearing is essential.
Treating your hearing loss can help you think and remember better. A recent study in France found that people with hearing loss who didn’t get treatment had trouble thinking but hearing aids helped their brain function more as standard.
We can help you if you have questions about your hearing. Our hearing specialists can help you at every step, from testing your hearing to fitting and programming hearing aids. We’re proud of how well we take care of our customers and how much we want to help you hear your best. Set up an appointment with us today to care for your hearing health.