This month draws our attention to Alzheimer’s Disease, a devastating cognitive disorder with mysterious causes. Although more and more research is being devoted to this condition, many of the causes remain elusive to scientists. The symptoms are well known, as is the degenerative nature of the disorder. And yet, we have yet to discover a cure or a failsafe preventative measure to protect ourselves and loved ones from the disease. Although mystery surrounds the condition, a surprising connection between hearing loss and cognitive function may be a window into the underlying nature of Alzheimer’s. After explaining some of what we know about this connection, we can put together the pieces of the puzzle that puts hearing loss in the same mechanism as cognition, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Connecting Hearing Loss with Cognition
Although what we know about cognition locates it in the brain, we also know that the thinking mind relies on sensory information from the surrounding world to understand what is going on. On a very basic level, the brain uses the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and the surface of the skin to bring in information that is translated into thoughts. You might imagine that if one of these sensory organs were impaired, the brain might respond in surprising ways to that lack of information. For example, many report that vision impairment enhances the acuity of the sense of hearing, and vice versa. However, this connection between hearing and thinking may go even deeper. When hearing is impaired, the brain may change in important ways to fill in the gaps left behind by sound. Structural changes occur in the auditory function of the brain, including the interlocking ways that other brain sectors put together information into thought.
Moving from Cognitive Function to Cognitive Failure
When the brain is no longer able to put together sensory information into meaningful wholes, it has to rearrange the pieces as best it can. In the case of hearing, you can imagine how confusing it might be to receive bits and pieces of sound that do not resemble entire words. It is truly amazing that the human brain does so well! And yet, the inability to combine sounds into recognizable words can be perilous for other aspects of cognitive functioning, as well. When the brain has to scramble to make complete thoughts out of pieces of sonic information, the cognitive load becomes immense. The statistical connection between hearing loss and dementia has been clearly documented. A study by prominent Johns Hopkins researcher Dr. Frank Lin found that people with hearing loss were 24% more likely to have Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, he found that the worse the hearing loss had become, the more likely people were to have developed Alzheimer’s. In other studies, the rate of decline was also linked, with those who suffered from hearing loss tending to face a quicker decline in cognitive functioning.
Extending Hearing Loss to Alzheimer’s Disease
With this link between hearing loss and dementia securely documented, many wonder if hearing loss could be an unknown causal factor in the risk for Alzheimer’s. So far the research has shown that the two conditions are both present in many people, and yet this relationship is not enough to suggest that hearing loss is causing cognitive failure. Although Alzheimer’s research has not yet shown that the overloaded cognitive scramble experienced by those with hearing loss is sufficient to bring on dementia, the mechanism would explain the statistical anomaly between the two conditions. One direction for new research will be to isolate Alzheimer’s among the other types of dementia and to see if the connection is as strong. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, but it is not the only form. New research can isolate Alzheimer’s specifically to see if a strong connection exists with hearing loss, as well.
Although we don’t know if hearing loss causes Alzheimer’s, finding assistance for hearing loss can only help reduce the cognitive load on the mind. By having your hearing tested and seeking out assistive technology, you may be easing your mind in more ways than one. Talk to us at Worth Hearing about the options available to you that my have benefits that extend far beyond your ability to hear clearly.