New Study Shows Early Hearing Loss Could Lead to Dementia

It’s normal for people nowadays to have their music cranked up, attend loud concerts, and continuously turn the volume up on the television. But what a lot of people often forget is that when listening to sounds louder than 85 decibels, it can cause permanent hearing loss. And even the slightest bit of hearing loss can cause serious problems down the line, according to a new study that found damaged hearing can actually alter the way the brain functions.

Researchers from Ohio State University in Columbus found that minor hearing loss in young adults can cause alterations in brain activity that don’t normally occur until old age.

The experiment started off going in a different direction. The researchers asked 35 participants aged 18 to 41 to listen to different sentences while undergoing MRI scans. The original intent of the study was to note differences in brain activity when listeners heard a complex sentence versus a more simple sentence. But soon, the researchers discovered something much bigger among the younger participants.

There were some participants who had a subtle hearing loss, which was not problematic until the researchers noticed that they actually processed the sentences they were hearing differently than the other participants. Furthermore, their brain activity was more closely related to that of the older participants.

“This isn’t about the ear — it’s about the brain, the cognitive process, and it shouldn’t be happening until people are at least older than 50,” lead researcher Yune Lee explained.

Because of this unusual brain activity, the researchers expressed worry that the seemingly mild hearing issues may continue to worsen and begin to affect comprehension. In doing this, the development of neurodegenerative conditions, like dementia, may begin earlier than normal.

There are, of course, a variety of causes of hearing loss. For example, working in an environment and being exposed to loud noises can cause hearing loss over time. In this case, employees may be approved for workers’ comp coverage, which about 74% of states require. But this new research shows that any level of hearing loss at a young age may turn out to be detrimental later on in life.

According to Lee, previous research has found that people with mild hearing impairments are twice as likely to have dementia than those with no hearing loss. And those with moderate or above hearing loss are three to five times more likely to be at risk for developing dementia.

The researchers note that this discovery is significant because hearing isn’t just hearing — it involves the processing and finding meaning of what is being heard. So when young people experience hearing impairments early on in life, they’re using cognitive functions that don’t normally need to be utilized until later on.

Already, about 20% of Americans report having some level of hearing loss. And while the researchers agree that the connection between early onset of hearing loss and dementia needs to be looked at further, it’s certainly something to keep in mind when listening to loud sounds on a regular basis.

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