We all know that hearing plays a huge role in our lives. Hearing is what connects us to other people, allowing us to communicate with one another through sound. Hearing also keep us safe. It alerts us to a car speeding down the road or a fire alarm going off. But perhaps the greatest part about sound is how it adds richness to our everyday lives. Nothing can compare to the sound of the breeze rustling through the leaves on a crisp autumn afternoon or the sound of birds chirping in the spring.
Hearing loss has long been seen as a benign condition that is a natural part of the aging process. While it’s true that hearing often diminishes with age, the consequences of this can be far from harmless. Outside of a lower overall quality of life, there can be other more serious consequences to hearing loss.
Human beings are meant to be social. Solitary confinement has been used throughout the ages as a form of punishment for bad behavior. There is well documented research that points to socially isolated people being more likely to experience mental disorders like anxiety and depression as well as physical disorders like high blood pressure and insomnia.
People who have untreated hearing loss are much more likely to be socially isolated. When someone can’t communicate with those around them, they will avoid situations where they have to interact. You may have witnessed an older person voluntarily withdrawing at a social gathering. Or maybe you have had someone say no to going out to a restaurant for no apparent reason. Situations like these can be a result of untreated hearing loss and the desire of an individual to avoid embarrassment and the strenuous mental load of piecing together conversations.
There is a growing body of research linking hearing loss to dementia. At this point it has not been proven that hearing loss is a direct cause of dementia. A 2011 John’s Hopkins study found that adults with mild, moderate, and severe hearing loss were 2x, 3x, and 5x more likely to develop dementia, respectively.
Some of the theories as to why hearing loss might cause dementia are quite compelling. One leading theory is that because the brain’s auditory cortex will lose functionality when it is under-stimulated, other areas of the brain will recruit those resources for their own use. In turn, the frontal lobe of the brain is used to put together sentences and conversations. This can put a high amount of stress on the listener.