June is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month:
Although the brain naturally becomes smaller as humans age, findings from a study by Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Aging have linked accelerated brain tissue atrophy to older individuals with at least a 25-dB hearing loss. The results of this study are similar to those of past studies that reported marked differences in the brain structures of both humans and animals with a measurable hearing loss. The findings add to a growing list of health consequences associated with untreated hearing loss, including increased risk of dementia, falls, hospitalizations, and diminished overall physical and mental health.
“If you want to address hearing loss well, you want to do it sooner rather than later.”
– Dr. Patti Thigpen
“If you want to address hearing loss well, you want to do it sooner rather than later,” says Dr. Patti Thigpen, audiologist and owner of Thigpen Hearing Center. “If hearing loss is potentially contributing to these differences we’re seeing on MRI’s, you want to treat it before these brain structural changes take place.”
The study was performed over 10 years, and the participants underwent yearly MRIs to track changes in brain structure. The MRIs showed shrinkage in the regions of the brain associated with processing sound and speech.This shrinkage is most likely caused by the auditory cortex being deprived of stimulation when hearing loss is present. Areas of the brain that play a role in memory and sensory integration and that are involved in early stages of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease also showed atrophy. Overall, brain shrinkage was greater by an additional cubic centimeter per year in those with compromised, untreated hearing loss.
“Treating hearing loss before any major structural changes take place is our biggest concern as hearing care providers,” says Dr. Thigpen. “With each new study, the need for personalized, individual solutions for hearing loss is emphasized. Hearing loss doesn’t affect everyone in the same way, so it shouldn’t be treated in the same way. Obtaining specialized treatment, sooner rather than later, is still the best prevention for cognitive decline.”