Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hearing Loss: A Foggy-Brained Future?

As a person with severe hearing loss, I've often feared missing the joke at a party, or sleeping through my alarm clock.   Where I've failed to worry regards any risks for future health concerns.   I don't worry because, honestly, I'm not aware of any.

This morning I received an email from my husband with a link to an article by Katherine Bouton, author of the new book, “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I — and 50 Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You." (Great title, by the way.  I look forward to reading this.)

While I choose to keep my spouse informed of various minutiae throughout my day via text or instant message ("My back itches."  "I'm going to the bathroom now."), Jeff doesn't usually reach out unless it's pretty important.  So when I received the following link, I paid attention.  An important read if you or someone you know has hearing loss: New York Times Article, Straining to Hear and Fend Off Dementia.

I spent the next few minutes reading, pummeled with both terror for my future and a sense of validation that some of my recent experiences seem supported by scientific evidence.

According to Bouton's article, which discusses the findings from a 2011 neurological study, the worse the hearing loss is of a person, the greater the risk s/he has of developing dementia.  THAT's the terrifying part.

The study, led by Dr. Frank Lin, an otolaryngologist and epidemiologist at John Hopkins School of Medicine, discusses the reasons associated with this correlation, the first being social isolation.

Given the first sign, I let out a sigh of relief.  I'm a social butterfly after all.  Sure, I'm a mom... but I DO go out sometimes, and when I do, I might even sing karaoke, and I most definitely bust out Michael Jackson choreography publicly as often as possible.  Surely this makes me social.  I'd even go as far to say that I'm the person who is called upon to greet guests at a function, to welcome new staff into the workplace.  In my professional endeavors, I've even been nicknamed "Pambassador" for my gregarious abilities.  Social isolation?  Well, that's certainly not me. 

And then I read on.  The article discusses multidisciplinary studies on isolation showing that perceived isolation, or loneliness, is a more important predictor of health outcomes.


How many times have I gone out with friends to loud, crowded bars?  I think of the photos from many nights out.  Physically, I was there.  I was with the group.  But in most scenarios, I probably didn't hear a word.  I think of the many times I've arrived home from social occasions, utterly exhausted from my attempts to interact with my peers, tears streaming down my face because of how alone I felt in the world.

Preparing for a night out with friends, November 2011 (Pre-Cochlear Implant)

Do I have perceived isolation?  You bet I do. Each time I cry of my loneliness, or question why I can't reach a certain level of connection with friends, it's my perceived isolation staring me in the face.

The second risk factor is cognitive load.  The article explains: "Essentially, the brain is so preoccupied with translating the sounds into words that it seems to have no processing power left to search through the storerooms of memory for a response."    So there's a NAME for this!

Throughout the last decade, but mostly in the last five years, I have been SO TIRED.  Often I have to remove myself from family situations because I need to rest, although physically I'm usually not drained.  It is indeed a mental exhaustion that wears down my spirit, that makes me feel as though I'm a lazy person when I KNOW I have the drive to work hard and to focus.  Just last week I went to my physician for blood work, trying to identify the vitamin deficiencies or conditions that were contributing to my self-diagnosed case of "foggy brain."    My test results came back normal, but I now question cognitive load's role in my fatigue.

The third risk factor is a pathological process suggesting the possibility of a genetic or environmental factor that could be causing both hearing loss and dementia.  I can't pretend to know anything about that, but I'd prefer to stay away from this factor if at all possible.

So what does this mean?  Does this indicate I'm en route to dementia?  Maybe.

But for now, this article reminds me I'm not alone.  Forty-eight million Americans suffer from some degree of hearing loss.   FORTY EIGHT MILLION!  Still, the stigma of hearing loss and the many uninsured costs of remedying the conditions keep so many from seeking the assistance they not only need, but the help they deserve.  Bouton's article also makes me recognize I need to take care of myself.  This means more rehabilitation efforts, more audiologist visits, and more of an effort to build social relationships in less noisy settings.  While I can't choose what frequencies I am able to hear naturally, I certainly can advocate for myself so I'm not in a position where I have to strain.

Lord knows my cognitive load is heavy enough.


  1. Isn't it interesting how FREEING it can be to just NAME something!? Especially when you didn't know there even WAS a name for what you felt so alone experiencing?

    You write so beautifully, I feel like I'm going through it with you. Thank you for sharing your journey with us, sweet Pam. And THANK YOU for reminding all of us that we need to continually strive to better understand ourselves so we can more fully engage with the world around us.

    You are LOVED.


    1. Thank you Donna. The moment I read the words "cognitive load" and "perceived isolation" I had a light bulb moment. The last few years I have felt as though I am weak, lazy, and judged by even those closest to me for not "sucking it up" and moving on with my activities. How validating it is to know there is scientific evidence supporting what I knew in my gut to be true.

      Please continue to go through the journey with me. Slowly and surely, I am realizing our life experiences are so much richer when shared. Because of people like you, I FEEL loved, and I am grateful. Love, Pam

  2. Pam, this is an extraordinary piece of writing...Your honesty and thoughtfulness on a topic so sensitive to you is compelling, and you have shared some information here that is potentially important to many people. Hope you don't mind if I post the link on my Facebook page. Thank you for sharing this!
    ~ Pam Sissons

  3. Hi Pam! Thank you for your kind words. As soon I read Katherine Bouton's article, I knew I had to share this information. The cognitive load and perceived isolation that accompanies hearing loss is so emotional and confusing, but the more I'm learning, and the more I connect with others, the more empowered I feel to be myself and to help others to be okay with themselves too.

    Please feel free to share. Thank you again!