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Did You Know? Even Mild Hearing Loss Can Lead to Dementia

Health

A miserable bout of sinusitis led me to have my hearing tested. “Mild hearing loss,” the results revealed. I’ve since visited an audiologist who has extensive skills and experience and who has partnered with an American neuroscientist/audiologist to co-author a book and learned that I need hearing aids! Not because I can’t hear but because … dementia! What the? I know, but hear me out. (See what I did there?)

A few months ago, I suffered from a pretty wretched bout of sinusitis. My left nostril was completely swollen, blocking any passage of air and when it finally did clear, thanks to a multi-pronged approach consisting of steroid spray, antibiotics, pseudoephedrine and whatever else my GP recommended, I noticed my ears felt blocked too. My doctor looked inside my ears and said “Yes, you’ll need those cleaned.” So I duly went off to an audiology clinic that was advertising ear cleaning using the micro-suction technique. In past years, I’d had my ears syringed but I always felt like that was fairly traumatic; not painful, but not good for the ear canals.

Micro-suction ear cleaning

Micro-suction is like a tiny vacuum. The therapist places a small metal funnel in your ear canal and uses it as a guide for the micro-suction nozzle. A microscope is used to look deep into the canal at magnification so the therapist can see exactly what she’s doing and only access the wax, without causing any damage. The little sucker on the low-pressure micro-suction device works like a very gentle vacuum cleaner. You do hear the sucking noises but that’s about the extent of any ‘discomfort’. Sure, it’s not nice having someone poking around in your ear but stay still and it’ll be over in a very short time.

microsuction ear cleaning tinnitus dementia

Then came the hearing test

The audiologist was a lovely lady, very gentle and empathetic. Upon completing the ear cleaning, she offered me a discounted hearing test. I duly agreed and went through all the procedures. It was a bit disconcerting, getting to the parts of the test where my hearing seemed to be failing me, but I completed it and waited for the results. “So, yes, you have mild hearing loss,” the audiologist explained. She showed me the graphs and explained the extent of my hearing loss and what it all meant. I had her send the test results to my GP, we discussed them and then it was over.

The tinnitus, ohh the tinnitus

I’ve suffered from tinnitus at various points in my life but I’ve tended to block it out. Since my sinusitis episode, I noticed that it’s pretty much relentless. I don’t notice it when I’m working, talking, watching TV or listening to music. Lying in bed at night, it’s there like a bed companion, always keeping me company. I try to think of it as just that, my very own companion, almost like a reassuring, consistent ‘someone’. There are myriad theories as to what tinnitus really is, ranging from medical issues to spiritual musings. For me, I’m ok with it. I’m what’s called ‘habituated to it’. But it would be nice to not have it.

The National Center for Health Statistics studies reports that tinnitus affects an estimated 32 percent of the U.S. population. That’s a lot, in my opinion. And of those who suffer from it, 40% experience it for 80% of their day! Tinnitus is usually associated with hearing loss.

On to the hearing aid recommendation

My cousin works for the aforementioned highly experienced audiologist, Andrew Campbell. I dropped in to say hi and happened to meet her boss and he suggested I forward my original hearing test results to him. I did so, and he said: “Ah yep, mild hearing loss, permanent in the high pitches which means you are missing out on many consonants, but do you mind if I do another test with you?” He had me take a test that involved listening to two voices speaking and then I would have to listen out for a beep followed by a spoken statement and repeat it back to him. Turned out my results here weren’t so bad. Nonetheless, we discuss the correlation between hearing loss and dementia.

In pure laymen’s terms, basically, if your hearing declines, then your brain is not receiving the full gamut of sensory messages from your ears. As a result, the hearing and memory centres of the brain begins to atrophy. In other words, use it or lose it. Andrew firmly believes, just like any other chronic health condition, catch it early, treat it early.  He shared with me an image (below) showing a cross section of the brain of a 68-year-old woman with untreated mild hearing loss and the brain of 68-year-old woman with normal hearing. Up to 40% less grey matter is shown in the areas of the brain responsible for memory and attention. Read: What You Need to Know about Hearing Loss and Dementia.

brain showing mild hearing loss

Hearing loss and dementia

I asked my GP about this and he concurred, explaining that it’s not just hearing but other senses too. I then asked that since my mother is 82 and has poor eyesight and poor hearing, why doesn’t she have dementia? He explained that dementia is a result of multifactorial causes. He said there are people in their eighties who have smoked all their lives and have no sign of lung cancer and there are people who’ve never put a cigarette in their mouth or been around smokers who do have lung cancer.

My father died at age 73 and was terribly concerned about dementia as it runs in his side of the family. Happily, Mum’s side seems to be free of it (touch wood). But I don’t like the contemplate a future with dementia so the thought of staving it off for longer with the assistance of hearing aids is incredibly tempting. And isn’t it a lovely bonus that I would hear better and my tinnitus could be alleviated?!!

So as I sit and write this, I can say that yes, I will be very interested in attending the talk that the audiologist will be running next week. And I am very interested to discover the difference that hearing aids make to my life. Brace yourself though … they’re around $10,000 (I’m talking AUD here). I’d get some money back from my health insurance and there is the possibility of a payment plan subscription but I do have to weigh up the costs and benefits.

In coming weeks, I’ll post updates to this tale so stay tuned. And in the meantime, go and get your ears tested. A quality life depends on looking after all aspects of your health. Just because you’re in your fifties and may need hearing aids doesn’t mean you’re over the hill and/or physically ready for the scrap heap!

Oh, by the way, I also suffer from short-term memory issues and can be halfway through a sentence and forget what I was going to say. I thought that was from menopause but evidently, it can be attributed to mild hearing loss too. Are you relating to any of this?

Here’s a book I found extremely revealing. Andrew Campbell, my Audiologist is currently co-authoring a book with this author (Dr Keith N. Darrow). Click the image to read more about the book and purchase if you feel like learning more about this important health issue. The book is Stop Living In Isolation: How Treating Hearing Loss can change your life, maintain your independence, and may reduce your risk of dementia.

 

 


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