When I was a teenager, I just loved loud, brassy sounds. Booming music sent chills through my spine and energy to my soul. I loved groovin’ to the beat. The louder the music, the better.
Did I give a hoot about protecting my ears? I was a child of the ’60s. I’ll let you figure out the answer to that question.
But now that I’m an adult in my 60s, I look at things differently. Those loud noises are no longer fun. And they are, in fact, dangerous. I want to preserve the hearing I have so I can enjoy life.
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows there also is another reason to protect your hearing: Hearing loss and dementia may be connected.
Now that’s a shocker. As you are probably aware, dementia – including the most common form, Alzheimer’s – is on the rise. Whatever action we can take to prevent that dread is worth considering.
The study out of Johns Hopkins followed 2,000 normal seniors for more than five years, measuring their general health, eyesight, hearing and “cognitive skills.” That included memory, the ability to take information and act on it, things most of us do all the time.
The research showed that seniors who had a significant hearing loss were 40 percent more likely to have some form of cognitive impairment. Considering that 27 million people have a hearing loss, this is a rather disturbing finding.
What might be going on here? It’s not quite clear, but we do know that people who can’t hear tend to withdraw from life and have fewer social interactions – and, thus, fewer chances to learn.
Some researchers theorize that when your hearing isn’t working right your brain has to work harder to decode what you’re hearing. It has to take a “garbled” message and make it straight. Perhaps that extra effort takes your brain away from doing other things that are critical to brain health.
You could argue it’s a chicken and egg thing – does the hearing loss cause the dementia or does the dementia cause the hearing loss? I certainly don’t know, but what I do know is that my mom died of dementia, so anything I can do to prevent it from hitting me is worthwhile.
First off, hearing protection is the key to preserving whatever hearing you have left. That means using noise-reducing ear plugs when you start up the snow blower (sad to think about; not that far away) or the lawn mower, and when you’re in a noisy airplane. And make sure the music you listen to on your iPod is turned down to the point you can still hear the people and sounds around you.
Next, if you think you have a hearing loss, or someone says you do, get tested. If you need a hearing aid, buy one. Yes, they are expensive and, yes, they do take getting used to. But I remember what former U.S. surgeon general C. Everett Koop once said: “It’s the best money I ever spent.”
My spin: Hearing fitness is just another part of physical fitness. Just like you take care of the body, take care of your ears.
Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, university professor, author and broadcast journalist. He also hosts a popular radio call-in program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WBFO-FM 88.7.