Worried about your brain shrinking as you age? You might want to check your hearing. And that’s important for older women to consider since our hearing may start declining during the menopausal transition.
First, let’s look at hearing loss in middle-age women. A 2009 study out of Sweden involved 104 women who were, on average, 51 years of age. Their hearing was tested twice during this longitudinal study. The researchers found that the menopausal transition may trigger rapid hearing decline in healthy women. This decline is seen first in the left ear within four years after the last menstrual period. Hearing in the right ear tends to decline between 5-7 years after the final menstrual period. From that point until the 13th year after a woman’s last menstrual period, the decline in hearing in both ears seems to be more subtle.
Now, let’s talk about the link between hearing loss and brain shrinkage. A new study out of Johns Hopkins University looked at changes in brain volume in 126 study participants who were between the ages of 56 and 86. These participants had hearing tests as well as MRI brain scans at the beginning of the 10-year study as well as a brain scan during each year of the study. Participants also were evaluated as to whether they had hypertension, diabetes and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
At the start of the study, 75 participants were found to have normal hearing. Overall, 78 percent of the study participants had some level of hearing loss. Fifty-one participants had impaired hearing, which was defined as having hearing loss greater than 25 decibels, which is when it becomes difficult to communicate normally with people.
The researchers found that the hearing-impaired group had more than 16 percent more shrinkage of their brains per year than the other group with better hearing. This shrinkage was seen primarily in the right temporal lobe, which is tasked with processing spoken language.
So what should you be looking for in relation to hearing loss? This difficulty can include trouble hearing the other person when using the telephone or difficulty following conversations that involve multiple people. You also may find yourself needing to turn up the television or radio volume or having difficulty hearing due to background noise. You also may experience difficulty understanding women and children or may think that others are mumbling.
If you are having difficulty hearing, you should see your doctor because hearing loss can result from a variety of causes. These causes can include head injuries, tumors, infections, heart conditions, ear wax buildup, lengthy exposure to very loud noises, and the aging process.
Hearing loss can snowball into other conditions, such as depression or withdrawal. Furthermore, older people who experience hearing loss may instead be seen as confused, uncooperative or unresponsive.
So how can you protect you r hearing? The United Kingdom’s NHS recommends the following tips:
- Use earplugs or ear muffs to protect your ears and then move away from the noise as quickly and as often as possible.
- Lower the music volume. Do not use music as a way to drown out background noises.
- Use the 60:60 rule in which you listen to no more than 60 percent of a device’s maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes a day.
- Wear headphones in order to block background noise so you can keep the volume lowered. Ear-buds are less effective at lowering background noise. Do take regular breaks from using the headphones in order to protect your hearing.
- Lower the volume on the television, radio and other devices.
- When listening to live music, be sure to use earplugs.
- Ask to reduce noise levels at work.
- Wear earplugs or earmuffs when using noisy equipment such as leaf blowers, lawn mowers, power drills, etc.
- Lower the volume on the radio when driving since listening to loud music in a confined space can damage hearing.
Primary Sources for This Sharepost:
Hederstierna, C., et al. (2010). The menopause triggers hearing decline in healthy women. Hearing Research.
Lukits, A. (2014). The research report: Music genres may influence what we buy online. The Wall Street Journal.
National Institute on Aging. (2013). Hearing loss.
NIH SeniorHealth. (ND). What is hearing loss?
NHS Choices. (2013). Top 10 tips to help protect your hearing.
Dorian Martin writes about various topics for HealthCentral, including Alzheimer’s disease, diet/exercise, menopause and lung cancer. Dorian is a health and caregiving advocate living in College Station, TX. She has a Ph.D. in educational human resource development. Dorian also founded I Start Wondering, which encourages people to embrace a life-long learning approach to aging. She teaches Sheng Zhen Gong, a form of Qigong. Follow Dorian on Twitter at @dorianmartin, Facebook or Instagram at @doriannmartin.