We all know it: smoking is really bad for you. It’s linked to a laundry list of health conditions, including (but not limited to) lung problems, heart disease, emphysema, and just about every kind of cancer you can think of. But it turns out, at least when it comes to cognitive decline and conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, smoking is actually not the worst thing you can do. No, the worst thing you can do is ignore early signs of hearing loss.
According to a report from the New York Times, nearly 38 million Americans suffer from untreated hearing loss, while studies included in the report state that people can experience cognitive decline even from minimal hearing loss. The findings conclude that hearing loss is the largest risk factor to cognitive decline that you can actually take action against – beating out stalwarts like smoking, high blood pressure, and social isolation. So when it comes to protecting your brain’s health, taking care of your hearing is a very smart idea.
Here are some quick facts about hearing loss and cognitive decline:
- Mild hearing loss doubles the likelihood of developing dementia vs undamaged hearing
- Moderate hearing loss increases the risk by three times
- Men with hearing loss are 69% more likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease compared to those with undamaged hearing
How Hearing Loss Impacts Your Brain
While the exact cause is still up for debate, researchers and hearing specialists have a pretty good idea of why hearing loss causes cognitive issues like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. One reason is that hearing loss causes people to withdraw socially since it’s more difficult to participate in conversations and activities with other people. This lack of social stimulation can accelerate cognitive decline since engaging with other people is one of the best ways to protect your brain’s health. This is often why senior citizens tend to thrive in assisted living facilities where they’re involved in community activities, as opposed to living on their own and having minimal contact with other people.
Other theories are based on the fact that the brain shrinks and is overworked as it tries to process sounds. The brain of a person with damaged hearing must work overtime to understand simple things like conversations. The extra brain power used to make up for hearing loss taxes the brain and takes away from other important tasks like remembering and thinking. When the brain works overtime like this, it increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
What You Can Do to Protect Your Brain’s Health
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to hold on to your cognitive health and stave off afflictions like dementia. Prevention is a huge key for protecting your hearing – avoiding situations where your ears are subjected to loud sounds over a long period of time, like listening to earphones at high volume for hours on end, is a good way to minimize hearing loss. You can also take precautions if you know you’re going to be exposed to loud sounds, like if you’re going to a concert or working at a construction site. If you find yourself in one of these situations, it’s a good idea to have a pair of earplugs ready or even a pair of noise-canceling earmuffs.
If you’re already suffering from hearing loss, you still have options. Hearing aids can help people with mild to severe hearing loss hear better, which is good for your mental acuity. Hearing aids are becoming increasingly affordable and the technology behind them has improved by leaps and bounds over the last few decades, allowing users to connect to Bluetooth devices and also cancel out background noise like the wind.