It’s easy for many to take for granted hearing everyday sounds. Listening to oncoming traffic when crossing the street. Enjoying birds chirping in springtime to lift our mood. Even hearing the sizzle of a frying pan could make us feel accomplished.
These familiar sounds often leave a big impact on our quality of life, and shape our relationships with friends and family. So losing such a vital sense like hearing can be devastating, and lead to other problems that impair cognition. Knowing when to seek medical attention and understanding the full effects of hearing loss is what those who tuned in to the recent Herald Inside LI webinar with Dr. Lawrence Cardano were looking for.
“Hearing loss is associated with cognitive decline, dementia and falls since the parts of our brains that are usually stimulated with sound start to decorate,” said Cardano, an audiology doctor, author, and certified dementia practitioner explained.
“If you have trouble with hearing clarity, you’re putting a lot more mental effort into figuring out what people are saying. You don’t have as much mental resources left over to remember what the person is saying.”
When doctors solve hearing clarity problems, Cardano said, they investigate how the brain interprets sound. They first look at orientation between the ears and the brain, which helps the brain understand where sound is coming from. They also assess recognition of sounds that are like one another, along with how well patients focus.
“You can hear two people talking at the same time. And if you have normal hearing, you can decide on which person to focus on, and you can switch from one to another,” Cardano said. “But if you don’t do a good job treating hearing loss, you can hear their voices, but can’t focus on one or the other. You just hear a bunch of noise.”
Research from Johns Hopkins Medicine shows that mild hearing loss increases significantly with cognitive decline and dementia, and 50 percent of the connections between the inner ear to the brain don’t function properly. People with hearing loss are likely to become socially isolated since carrying conversations can become more difficult. The resulting cognitive overload, Cardano added, also increases the risk for dementia.
Over time, many develop cerebral atrophy — or shrinkage of the brain — from deteriorating neural connections, a hallmark of dementia.
Traditional hearing tests don’t provide enough insight into what causes most hearing loss, Cardano says, which greatly impacts treatment. He believes cognitive function screenings for those 55 and older are essential since they also assess the risk of cognitive decline and hearing loss. These tests evaluate memory, vision, executive function, reaction time and processing speed.
“If we use this as a baseline if a person has hearing loss and hearing clarity problems, repeating this screening six months later will typically see improvements in some of these parameters,” Cardano said. “Hearing loss is a progressive degenerative condition.”
Doctors are now using a deep neural network of artificial intelligence in hearing devices which can greatly improve a patient’s quality of life. The artificial intelligence learns sounds like how a child learns language — through trial and error.
No matter how advanced the technology is, however, it needs to be verified and validated to assess the prescription.
Treatment for hearing loss is ongoing, and treatment must be adjusted and maintained over time. Since it’s a progressive condition, hearing clarity is going to gradually decorate over time.
But fortunately, as hearing clarity decorates, Cardano said, the technology to address it improves.