Nature vs. nurture–it’s a debate about the origins of behavior that stretches back many years. And now your ears are getting caught in the crossfire. It’s okay, though–it’s a friendly debate.
Here’s why: Previously it was thought that most hearing loss was related to exposure to noise or age-related. Researchers have since discovered something like 44 genes connected to the development of age-related hearing loss. So is it the genes that are causing your hearing loss? Or does your environment–the constant noise you surround yourself with on a daily basis–cause eventual hearing loss?
The answer has implications beyond how well you’re able to hear. Because diminishing hearing has been found to be linked to your overall health and your mental health, knowing more about the tiny genes that cause hearing loss could help keep your brain–and you–healthy.
Genes are complicated
The average human has somewhere between 20,000-25,000 genes in their body. That’s… a lot of information to keep track of. Scientists have spent decades trying to figure out which gene does what, how that recessive trait influences this phenotype and so on. In that pursuit, scientists had previously identified a few specific genes responsible for hearing loss in children.
This new research ups the total number of genes known to 44 and focuses more on age-related hearing loss, which can impact more than one third of the entire senior population. This makes hearing loss the single most common sensory impairment. Now that scientists have identified these 44 genes, can we work some Jurassic Park/CSI magic and cure hearing loss?
Alas, it’s more complicated than that.
Genetics and risk
The best way to think about these 44 genes–at this point in time–is as red flags. The more of these genes that show up in your own genetic soup (sorry for the image), the more likely you are to develop hearing loss. If you have many of these genetic markers, going to rock concerts every night will increase an already heightened risk.
If you have none of these genes, blaring your music through your headphones every day will still increase your risk for hearing loss–you’ll simply have a lower baseline risk (all else being equal).
Getting to the brain
So how will a genetic test for hearing loss keep your brain healthy? The answer to that lies in what we know about mental health and hearing loss. Study after study has shown that those who suffer from hearing loss find themselves at an increased risk for depression, dementia, anxiety, and other mental health issues. So we know that untreated hearing loss is bad for your ears and bad for your brain.
If you know you’re at an increased risk for hearing loss (say, via a quick genetic test that screens for a specific set of 44 genes), you can take steps to preserve your hearing and protect your mental health.
Some of those preventative measures may include:
- Ensuring you undergo hearing screenings regularly. Depending on your risk level, you may wish to undergo screenings more often than is typically recommended (your hearing specialist will probably tell you how often you should get checked).
- Taking steps to protect your hearing in even moderately loud environments. It’s not just the loud rock concert you need to worry about. Wearing ear protection when you’re mowing the lawn or snow blowing the driveway should be routine. Protecting yourself from noise damage is essential if you want your hearing to stay golden later in life. Really you should be protecting your hearing no matter what your genetic code says.
- Treating any hearing loss promptly. Sometimes, no matter what you do, hearing loss will develop. In those cases, swift treatment can help mitigate the mental health impacts. If you have a couple of effective hearing aids, for example, you’ll be less likely to isolate yourself or develop depression and dementia.
Debate rages on
The nature vs. nurture debate will likely continue for quite some time. Sure, scientists have identified those 44 genes, but that doesn’t mean they know precisely how each strand of DNA interacts with the others or how every protein structure forms.
That said, those genes do seem to indicate a higher risk factor for age-related hearing loss. So you should treat them as red flags. Once your attention has been drawn to those red flags, you can begin to manage your risks within a useful context.
44 reasons to manage your risk
And managing your risk of hearing loss can keep your brain healthy and firing on all neurons. Who would have thought that this would play such an outsized role on mental health?
Until the science is settled, it makes sense to take both nature and nurture into account when you’re thinking about protecting your hearing and keeping your brain healthy.