Alzheimer's Disease

Brain and Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month

By Morgan Leppla

Bodies are complex systems, composed of many minute details. The human anatomy serves to remind us of the intricacies of our world. This June for Brain and Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) invites you to join us in celebrating one of the most mysterious and fascinating part of the body: the brain.

For one to grasp the physiological complexity of being  human, one ought to understand how their body’s many systems work in tandem. For example, each person’s brain depends on stimulation to keep it in tip-top shape and and their bodies depend on their brains to function as they are intended to.

This is clearly a stripped down explanation of the role brains play. Of course an organism’s structure can be broken down into smaller and smaller parts, so let’s focus on one of special importance to us here at HHF, hearing.

Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., from Johns Hopkins University reports in 2014 that hearing loss affects brain structure, and specifically accelerates brain tissue loss. The study was conducted over a 10-year period with a sampling of people which included those with substantial hearing loss and those with normal hearing.  After analyzing years of magnetic resonance imaging scans, his conclusions suggest people with substantial hearing loss show higher rates of brain atrophy. Lin explains brain shrinkage could be the result of an “‘impoverished’ auditory cortex” since there is reduced brain stimulation in that area.

"If you want to address hearing loss well," Lin says, "you want to do it sooner rather than later. If hearing loss is potentially contributing to these differences we're seeing on an MRI, you want to treat it before these brain structural changes take place."

The human brain contains some of the most challenging biological mysteries in science (and always has). Unlocking those takes perseverance, so HHF thanks brain and hearing researchers for the time and energy devoted to rigorous research and ultimately revealing information critical to improving brain health.

Parts really do affect the health of the whole. So for the brain and beyond, please make an appointment with your hearing healthcare professional for your annual checkup and, if you are diagnosed with a hearing loss, managing it. More than just your hearing will benefit! Untreated hearing loss has been linked to dementia, depression, diabetes, falls, and heart disease.

Want to learn more about brain health? Check out last year’s blog here: Your Brain Is a Muscle: Use It or Lose It

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How Hearing Loss Affects Other Aspects of Your Health

By Patricia Sarmiento

A few years ago, my dad began experiencing hearing loss. He worked in loud factories all his life. And while in recent years he began wearing ear protection, I think there were many days on the job where he didn’t use any. As he grew older, all that time without ear protection took its toll.

Prior to his experiences with hearing loss, I must admit that I didn’t know much about it. As he began going through the necessary steps, like getting fitted for hearing aids, I began to look into how hearing loss can affect our overall health. Here’s what I found:

Falls: This was my first area of concern when my dad’s hearing loss was diagnosed. I knew that our ears play an important role in our balance. However, I was surprised to see how significantly one’s chances of falling increased with their hearing loss. WhittierHearing.com cites a study that found that even just mild hearing loss meant you were “three times more likely to have a history of falling.” Of course, the older someone is the more dangerous these falls can be. My dad was lucky in that his hearing loss didn’t ever seem to affect him in this way. But if you have a loved one who has fallen or is experiencing balance issues, get their hearing checked!

Depression. We actually began suspecting that my dad was experiencing hearing loss long before he began seeking treatment for it. I think he was simply too proud to admit that he was having problems. We had to repeat ourselves to him and sometimes at family gatherings he would withdraw altogether. It was when he stopped going to his weekly Men’s Breakfast at our church that we knew something was going on.

While my dad received treatment before his hearing loss really began to take a toll on his mental health, I can definitely see how it could lead to depression. People experiencing hearing loss may experience poorer quality of life, isolation and reduced social activity.

Dementia. Through my research, I found out that in older adults there is a connection between hearing loss and dementia and Alzheimer’s. Those with mild hearing impairment are nearly twice as likely to develop dementia compared to those with normal hearing. The risk increases three-fold for those with moderate hearing loss, and five-fold for those with severe impairment. It isn’t yet clear what causes the connection, but the article says some researchers believe it may result from those with hearing loss straining “to decode sounds,” which may take its toll on the brain.

So, what can you do to protect your hearing? I’d like to suggest going for a swim. Here’s why: This guide on swimming and heart health notes what an excellent cardiovascular and full body workout swimming can be. That’s important because there have been many studies showing a connection between heart health and hearing. Yet another reason to be sure you’re getting plenty of exercise!

Patricia Sarmiento loves swimming and running. She channels her love of fitness and wellness into blogging about health and health-related topics. She played sports in high school and college and continues to make living an active lifestyle a goal for her and her family. She lives with her husband, two children, and their Shih Tzu in Maryland.

See our Hearing Health story, “Have a Hearing Loss, Have Another Health Issue?” for more information about health conditions associated with hearing loss.

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Getting a Hearing Test May Be Good for Your Memory

By the Better Hearing Institute

If you want to help your memory and cognitive performance, you may want to get a hearing test and treat hearing loss. In response to a growing body of research that shows a link between unaddressed hearing loss and cognitive function, the Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) and the Better Hearing Institute (BHI) are encouraging people to get their hearing checked by a healthcare professional in recognition of World Alzheimer’s Month in September.


According to Brandeis University Professor of Neuroscience, Dr. Arthur Wingfield, who has been studying cognitive aging and the relationship between memory and hearing acuity for many years, effortful listening due to unaddressed hearing loss is associated with increased stress and poorer performance on memory tests.
 
His research shows that even when people with unaddressed hearing loss perceive the words that are being spoken, their ability to remember the information suffers—likely because of the draw on their cognitive resources that might otherwise be used to store what has been heard in memory. This is especially true for the comprehension of quick, informationally complex speech that is part of everyday life.
 
“Even if you have just a mild hearing loss that is not being treated, cognitive load increases significantly,” Wingfield said. “You have to put in so much effort just to perceive and understand what is being said that you divert resources away from storing what you have heard into your memory.”
 
How hearing loss affects cognitive function
Our ears and auditory system bring sound to the brain. But we actually “hear” with our brain, not with our ears.
 
According to Wingfield, unaddressed hearing loss not only affects the listener’s ability to perceive the sound accurately, but it also affects higher-level cognitive function. Specifically, it interferes with the listener’s ability to accurately process the auditory information and make sense of it.
 
In one study, Wingfield and his co-investigators found that older adults with mild to moderate hearing loss performed poorer on cognitive tests of memory than those of the same age who had good hearing.
 
In another study, Wingfield and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and Washington University in St. Louis used MRI to look at the effect that hearing loss has on both brain activity and structure. The study found that people with poorer hearing had less gray matter in the auditory cortex, a region of the brain that is necessary to support speech comprehension.
 
Wingfield has suggested the possibility that the participant’s hearing loss had a causal role. He and his co-investigators hypothesize that when the sensory stimulation is reduced due to hearing loss, corresponding areas of the brain reorganize their activity as a result.
 
“The sharpness of an individual’s hearing has cascading consequences for various aspects of cognitive function,” said Wingfield. “We’re only just beginning to understand how far-reaching these consequences are.”
 
As people move through middle age and their later years, Wingfield suggested, it is reasonable for them to get their hearing tested annually. If there is a hearing loss, it is best to take it seriously and treat it.
 
Hearing loss and dementia

A number of studies have come to light over the last few years showing a link between hearing loss and dementia.  Specifically, a pair of studies out of Johns Hopkins found that hearing loss is associated with accelerated cognitive decline in older adults and that seniors with hearing loss are significantly more likely to develop dementia over time than those who retain their hearing. 
 
A third Johns Hopkins study revealed a link between hearing loss and accelerated brain tissue loss. The researchers found that for older adults with hearing loss, brain tissue loss happens faster than it does for those with normal hearing.
 
Some experts believe that interventions, like hearing aids, could potentially delay or prevent dementia. Research is ongoing
 
Staying connected

A number of studies indicate that maintaining strong social connections and keeping mentally active as we age might lower the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association website.
 
Interestingly, BHI research shows that people with hearing difficulty who use hearing aids are more likely to have a strong support network of family and friends, feel engaged in life, and meet up with friends to socialize. They even say that using hearing aids has a positive effect on their relationships.

For more information about hearing health and finding a healthcare professional, please visit: http://hearinghealthfoundation.org/find-a-hearing-health-professional.

The content for this blog post originated in a press release issued by The Better Hearing Institute on September 8, 2015.

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Protect Your Ears (and Health) on St. Patrick's Day

By Yishane Lee

St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of Ireland’s patron saint, who is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. (The three-leaf clover is allegedly how he explained the Holy Trinity.) These days, the holiday is, for better or worse, associated with heavy drinking, and at the risk of dampening the festivities, we thought we should remind readers of the dangers of consuming excessive alcohol and hearing loss.

German researchers reported in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research that lifelong alcohol consumption damages the brain. Specifically, it leads to brain shrinkage. (Alzheimer’s disease has also been linked to brain tissue shrinkage.)

The disturbing news was that social drinkers with a lighter consumption of alcohol were just at risk as people who drank heavily, although more research is needed. To do their study, the scientists measured brain currents called brainstem auditory evoked potentials (BAEPs) to assess central auditory pathways in a group of 38 men who were undergoing tumor removal or plastic surgery.

Separately, a British report in the journal BMC Ear, Nose, and Throat Disorders found that drinking alcohol blunts lower frequencies—which happen to be the ones you need the most to understand speech.

Combine this with the difficulty people with hearing loss have mastering the “cocktail-party effect”—the ability to discern one person’s speech in the presence of a lot of background noise—and no wonder large, celebratory gatherings involving alcohol are a minefield for people with hearing loss as well as for those trying to protect their hearing. In other words, if you’re on your third or fourth Guinness and can’t understand the Irish bloke shouting about shamrocks (foreign accents are tricky, too!) in a crowded pub, have a tall glass of water next round.

There are yet more risks. Drinking alcohol also causes your blood vessels to expand. This puts you at risk for tinnitus. However, there has also been a hearing-protective effect ascribed to drinking red wine (or eating red grapes). This is due to the presence of resveratrol, a substance found in the skins of red grapes.

The bottom line? There’s no reason not to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a pint of Guinness, but as the saying goes, everything in moderation.

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