Conversations with my mother aren’t what they used to be. I kind of expect that as we both get older. But lately, there have been more communication problems than usual. We recently had lunch together, and three separate times during our meal, she asked me how my job was going.
My answer didn’t change (it’s fine–my job is fine), but it also didn’t seem to be gaining any traction with her. It wasn’t sticking, which was unusual for my mother. And that was concerning.
Alzheimer’s and dementia run in my family, so my brain immediately started running through the worst-case scenarios. I couldn’t focus on the last half of lunch because I was busy thinking about memory-care centers and neurologists and, well, the future.
But a funny thing happened on the drive home. She remembered everything I told her. She didn’t ask me the same questions over and over. The conversation flowed normally. And then it dawned on me…
It wasn’t dementia, it was her hearing
It wasn’t her brain that was misfiring, it was her ears. The ride in the car was smooth and quiet, so our voices were easy to differentiate from whatever ambiance there was. But the restaurant was full of chatty customers, loud laughter, clinking dishes, scraping forks. So, to my mother, my voice was difficult to discern from the background noise. This was a relief. But it did lead to an interesting conversation with my mother. At least in this venue, I didn’t need to repeat myself.
The connection between hearing and memory
My relief was, perhaps, a little premature. Because it turns out that there is a connection between hearing health and memory loss. There are three significant ways in which loss of hearing can erode your memory.
1. Quiet time
Whether you’re aware of it or not, your brain has to work really hard to make sense of all the sounds you hear (this is not, I am told, unique to speaking with your mother). Every drop of water, every syllable of speech, every clack of the keyboard–your brain is interpreting that data every second of every day (like some kind of fancy supercomputer).
As your hearing wanes so too does the amount of work your brain has to do, and this can lead to a certain amount of atrophy.
2. Extra strain
At the same time, as you struggle to hear, your brain is going through a kind of sensory overload. It’s working too hard. Think about the way that squinting at closed captions gives you a headache. When you’re struggling to hear, your ears are always straining. And that can cause wear and tear over time.
Hearing loss can be embarrassing. You don’t want to ask people to repeat themselves all the time. So, instead, you just stay home by yourself. And your brain isn’t getting the workout of that normal social interaction can create. Which can, over time, impact your memory (not to mention your mental health–isolation is almost never a great thing, as we humans are very social creatures).
The next steps
Considering I was planning my mother’s stay in a memory-care facility, I was very, very relieved to learn that hearing aids were the next logical step here. Because it turns out that hearing aids do a superb job of keeping cognitive decline at bay. The two might not seem connected at first–but a good hearing aid can help keep the brain engaged in interpreting noises, minimizing strain, and encouraging socialization.
When I made this pitch to my mother, she wasn’t exactly thrilled–hearing aids can be an idea you need to get used to. But it also meant we could converse over lunch without too much repetition, so it’s something she came around to.
If the situation with my mother is an indication of anything, it’s that getting a hearing aid can significantly improve your quality of life–and the stability of your mental health (and, therefore, the stability of your children’s mental health).