Cerebral atrophy: Your hearing loss could be a larger warning sign of a shrinking brain

FEATURE — Cerebral Atrophy, more commonly known as “brain shrinkage,” is a tell-tale sign of dementia.

Atrophy of any tissue implies a decrement in the size of the cell, which can be due to progressive loss of cellular contents; whereas cerebral atrophy describes a loss of neurons and the connections between them in the brain. As the diseases of dementia progress, more and more of the brain’s neural connections begin to die off.

In fact, MRI studies have found that an increased rate of cerebral atrophy can be used to reliably and predictably diagnose future cognitive decline in patients. With nearly a decade of reports indicating a link between hearing loss and dementia, cerebral atrophy is considered to be one of the major correlating factors of these two disorders.

Hearing loss impacts nearly 50 million people in the U.S. and is listed by the Department of Health and Human Services as the third most common chronic disorder affecting today’s older adults. Unfortunately for most of us, hearing loss as we get older is inevitable; impacting nearly 50% of seniors between the ages of 60-70 and increasing to rates over 80% as we age beyond 70.

This hearing loss is best characterized by the progressive loss of cells in the ear that consequently reduces the quantity and quality of neural connections of ear-to-brain. This slow-onset disease can have a significant impact on several key brain areas, including the memory, hearing, speech and language portions of cognition.

Several key research studies have pointed to the potential links of hearing loss and dementia, including the groundbreaking work of Dr. Lin and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins Medical Center which indicates that hearing loss can increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia by 200-500%, depending on degree of hearing loss.

Because the association of a shrinking brain with dementia has been long documented, even in people with mild cognitive impairment, new studies are emerging to determine if advanced rates of cerebral atrophy can occur in individuals with hearing loss.

In recent years, scientific studies using advanced brain imaging techniques, including functional MRI, have demonstrated that hearing impairment is associated with accelerated brain atrophy in both the overall brain as well as even more advanced reductions in volume associated with the memory, hearing, speech and language portions of the brain.

Every 3-4 seconds another patient is diagnosed with dementia, and rates of dementia are estimated to triple in the next 30 years. While there is no cure or treatment for this catastrophic disease, new studies indicate that nearly 35% of cases of dementia are considered preventable and that the early treatment of hearing loss is the most important action we can take to improve cognitive health and avoid dementia.

For a free report on the single most modifiable risk factor for dementia prevention, click here.

Written by KEITH N. DARROW, Ph.D., Harvard Medical and M.I.T. trained neuroscientist, director of audiology research at Intermountain Audiology.

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Resources

  • Intermountain Audiology St. George clinic | Address: 161 W. 200 North, Suite No. 100, St. George | Telephone: 435-228-5568Website
  • Intermountain Audiology Cedar City clinic | Address: 1277 N. Northfield Road, No. A220, Cedar City  | Telephone: 435-633-4684Website
  • Intermountain Audiology Richfield clinic | Address: 1090 Cove View Road, Richfield | Telephone: 435-681-9491Website

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