Hearing Loss Addressed Early Can Help Protect Brain

Since mild hearing loss is considered part of normal aging it's rarely treated until the loss is at a later stage. However, now that hearing loss is known to affect our risk of developing dementia, this casual approach needs to be reconsidered.

A recent study confirms this. Anu Sharma of the Department of Speech Language and Hearing Science at University of Colorado and her team has applied fundamental principles of neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to forge new connections, as a way to adapt to hearing loss.

"The hearing areas of the brain shrink in age-related hearing loss," Sharma said in an interview with Medical News Today. "Centers of the brain that are typically used for higher-level decision-making are then activated in just hearing sounds...these compensatory changes increase the overall load on the brains of aging adults."

The study findings suggest that the portion of the brain normally used for hearing can reorganize even in early stages of age-related hearing loss. According to Sharma, “These compensatory changes increase the overall load on the brains of aging adults…Compensatory brain reorganization secondary to hearing loss may also be a factor in explaining recent reports in the literature that show age-related hearing loss is significantly correlated with dementia," Sharma continued.

According to a 2011 AARP survey, by age 65 one in three people suffers some hearing loss. Researchers think that at least 80 percent of people 80 years old and over have hearing loss. Most of this hearing loss is left untreated.

Treating hearing issues early could help prevent compensatory changes in the brain and leave those areas available for the higher level decision making that is the original intention. What makes this even more important is that a change in decision making abilities is one sign of several types of dementia. As an important bonus, treating hearing loss early can prevent falls in the elderly.

Sharma and her colleagues plan to continue to study the fundamental aspects of neuroplasticity in deafness with the hope that their research may help improve outcomes for people with hearing loss and deafness.

"Our goal is to develop user-friendly EEG technologies to allow clinicians to easily 'image' the brains of individual patients with hearing loss to determine whether and to what degree their brains have become reorganized," Sharma said. "In this way, the blueprint of brain reorganization can guide clinical intervention for patients with hearing loss."

Carol Bradley Bursack
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Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at mindingourelders.com.