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Science identifies changes in brain cells for those with hearing loss

Posted on January 11, 2024
Doctors Consult Over An MRI Scan

January is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month and the dreaded category of dementia is on lots of people’s minds. It is well known there is a relationship between hearing loss and the risk of development of dementia. Newly released research may shed some light on the connection with the discovery of physical changes to brain cells in areas governing hearing and executive functions.

The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging or MRIs to see if hearing loss is associated with specific parts of the brain. They found physical changes in the areas of the brain that look after processing sound and that govern attention. These changes may make the brain less resilient and open the door for development of dementia.

The researchers suggested these regionally specific brain changes may occur due to sensory deprivation, not hearing sound, and the increased effort used to understand sounds and speech.

The lead researcher, Linda K. McEvoy, PhD, suggested the extra effort involved with trying to understand sounds may produce these changes in the brain which, in turn, may lead to increased risk of developing dementia. McEvoy is professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science, and senior investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute.

Statistics Canada estimates 50 per cent of adults over the age of 50 have some hearing impairment. Hearing impairment can be caused by illness, medication, loud noise exposure and genetics in addition to aging.

Other studies have shown even mild hearing loss can double the risk of developing dementia. Severe hearing loss increases that risk by five times.

So many people think, ‘oh, well, losing my hearing is just part of getting old’. That’s not the case. It’s part of a person’s overall health and what their future could look like. The repercussions of ignoring hearing loss are fairly wide and include relationship breakdown, serious falls that put you in hospital and an increased risk of depression.

At Hear Well Be Well, hearing tests are free for adults. There’s no reason to not know where you stand with your hearing. Hear Well Be Well has 14 locations in Ontario serving rural, small and mid-sized communities. You can read more about recent research here.