PUMPING IRONY: Brain Drain

A new study suggests that my hearing problems could cause my brain to give up some of its cognitive functions.

Brain-Drain

I was sitting at the dining room table Saturday morning, reading the paper and waiting patiently for the water in the tea kettle to come to a boil, when I glanced up to see My Lovely Wife dash around the corner to turn off the burner. “It’s going to boil dry,” she cried. “Didn’t you hear it whistling?”

“What? No, I didn’t hear it,” I said. “Sorry, but the cicadas in my head are really loud today.”

This explanation did not elicit much sympathy, probably owing to the fact that the racket forced her out of bed several yards away. MLW has very good hearing. I do not. Several years ago, I started noticing a pronounced ringing in my ears — a condition known as tinnitus. It manifests itself at various times as a subtle and often not-so-subtle high-pitched siren that, when timed correctly, can completely drown out similarly high-pitched sounds. Like the whistle of a tea kettle.

A few months ago, my doctor referred me to a specialist to test my hearing. I have, of course, ignored his advice, since my hearing is fine — except when it isn’t. But recent research out of the University of Colorado has me thinking that maybe I should reconsider.

Hearing and Dementia

The study, reported in Science Daily, suggests that the brain responds to early-stage hearing loss by shifting its attention away from other cognitive functions, a process that can lead to dementia. As lead researcher Anu Sharma puts it, “The hearing areas of the brain shrink in age-related hearing loss. Centers of the brain that are typically used for higher-level decision-making are then activated in just hearing sounds.”

Sharma’s research builds on earlier studies showing a correlation between hearing loss in older people and dementia. It is, she says, something geezers like me should take seriously. “One in three adults over the age of 60 has age-related hearing loss,” she noted. “Given that even small degrees of hearing loss can cause secondary changes in the brain, hearing screenings for adults and intervention in the form of hearing aids should be considered much earlier to protect against reorganization of the brain.”

While I happen to think it’s pretty nifty that our brains can reorganize themselves, the whole dementia thing certainly gives a geezer pause. It gets a guy thinking that maybe he ought to pay at least as much attention to his ears as he does to tea kettles. Maybe even more.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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