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An Informative Discussion About Hearing Loss, Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Did you know that November is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month? Take a moment to learn more about the importance of identifying and treating hearing loss, and how if left untreated, hearing loss may lead to dementia and even Alzheimer’s Disease.

This informative conversation between Mark Alyn, host of Late Night Health, and Dr. Sreek Cherukuri, founder of MDHearingAid, lays out some basic facts and options for treating hearing loss.

Mark: This is Late Night Health. This is the radio show that cares about the most important part of your life: your health.

Hi, I’m Mark Alyn and along with the insane Darrell Wayne, during the next two hours we’re going to take a look at a wide variety of topics that touch each and every one of us and our families. During hour two, for example, Robert Clancy will be joining us. He’s the author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Soul.” We’ll be talking to Robert. We’ll also be talking about an update with the Zika virus with Dr. Dana Cohen from New York City.

This hour, we’re going to talk about hearing and hearing loss as it affects Alzheimer’s and other dementia. We go to Chicago, one of my favorite cities on the planet, and we speak with Sreek Cherukuri, Dr. Cherukuri. Doctor, welcome to Late Night Health.

Sreek: Thank you for having me.

Mark: Your practice, you’re a hearing doc basically, are you not?

Sreek: Well I’m ear, nose, and throat surgeon which is the medical entryway for people with hearing loss. A hearing doctor may refer to a doctor of audiology which does testing and other balance evaluations of people with hearing loss. I’m in the physician category, not the audiologist category.

Mark: Got you, so what happens is the audiologist may do a test and then you examine it. The test results and a patient, maybe there are surgical and other options available.

Sreek: Yeah. Often it works a different way though. The patient will go to the primary care doctor and say, “I’m having trouble hearing,” or, “One ear is worse than the other.” Then they’ll come to me and then I will evaluate them and order a hearing test that the audiologist and I interpret together. On occasion we do get referrals from audiologists as well, but it’s usually the other way around.

Mark: Hearing, to me, is obviously important. It’s how we communicate as humans. It’s what sets us apart from animals. Animals obviously hear, but without that hearing it is very difficult for most of us to communicate.

Sreek: I would agree with that. Of all the senses we have, that is the interpersonal sense. One old saying that Helen Keller used to say who was both blind and deaf, and she said, “Blindness robs you from things, but deafness robs you from people.” You cannot interact properly with other people with hearing problems.

Mark: As we age in America, America turns grayer and grayer. I think there are more than 10,000 people a day that are turning, baby boomers reaching 60 or 65 every single day. You think of all the music that you’ve heard and standing next to 12-foot tall speakers cranked to the max, listening to music at high levels. It has to affect your hearing, does it not?

Sreek: You are correct. If we go back a little bit in time, we know that a lot of skin cancer and sun damage is a result of exposure years ago and lack of medical knowledge in that area. The same can be said for hearing. We expose ourselves to a lot of noise over our time, either in the workplace such as factories, maybe military or other recreational gun use, or loud music like you said, the rock concerts. Now we’re seeing in the younger population, a number of studies have shown an increase in hearing loss in teenagers and 20-year old people due to the iPod and the loud noise that’s going directly in your ear.

Mark: I’ve got to ask, are you a dad?

Sreek: I am.

Mark: How many children?

Sreek: I have two boys, age 10 and 7.

Mark: They’re not allowed to use iPads or iPods, are they?

Sreek: You know, they really don’t listen to music with headphones. That’s correct. It’s not a matter of us saying no, but they haven’t asked. If they did, I would use a very specific type of headphone that has a volume limiter in it. That keeps sound at a safe level.

Mark: In a couple of years, they’ll be more into music too probably, right?

Sreek: Yeah, you’re right. I will certainly be involved in the headphone choice. You are correct on that.

Mark: Oh absolutely. The headphones that come with iPhones, iPads, et cetera, and the Android products as well and MP3 players. Are they not healthy?

Sreek: Well it’s not the headphone per se. If you remember back, and I think a lot of your listeners will remember, 20, 30 years ago we’d have either a cassette Walkman or a CD Discman that ran on two AA batteries. Had wire and foam headphones that didn’t get that loud and the batteries would die after six or eight hours.

Mark: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sreek: Nowadays, with the technology advances, the batteries are rechargeable so they last all day, every day. The sound output is even loud as a rock concert, louder than a jackhammer, louder than a lot of sounds that these kids and young adults can be piping into their ears. Nowadays, the new headphones actually go into the canal so the sound is much closer to the eardrum and hearing apparatus, and potentially much more dangerous. The sad part of all this is the one preventable but irreversible type of hearing loss is noise-related hearing loss. Once you lose it, it’s gone.

Mark: End of story.

Sreek: End of story. There’s no current way to regenerate hearing once it’s gone. It’s a really bad thing.

Mark: We’re going to relate hearing loss and dementia, and create a link between dementia and Alzheimer’s for example. I wanted to just clarify a couple of things about hearing loss. We’ve done some programs on it in the past. I have said that really, that even though the technology is now digital, the fact is that as you’re losing your hearing the nerves are dying that connect the hearing apparatus, your ear, to the brain. What we’re trying to do is force more sound down that nerve path. Am I correct?

Sreek: That’s correct. Hearing loss a very gradual, often invisible condition. Often it creeps up over five to seven years, and the person with it is often the last to recognize it. They either can make up some of the deficit with context clues such as lip reading or sentence context. The person that’s being asked to repeat, let’s say family member or a co-worker, is always the earlier one or the first one to identify that the person has trouble hearing.

Mark: That’s why people will say to dads, because I think men lose their hearing a little bit more often than hearing, “Dad, your TV. The TV, turn it down.” I know that that’s what’s happened in my house.

Sreek: Absolutely. It’s a very subtle offset and there’s a fair amount of denial as well as stigma. I’m hoping that this conversation and your listeners can understand the importance of hearing loss and really the danger of delaying treatment.

Mark: We’re also going to spend some time, we’re going to mention the fact that you have created a whole line of inexpensive hearing aids. We’ll probably do this again in a few weeks, MD Hearing Aid. You can go to mdhearingaid.com for more information. Rather than spending $6,000 on hearing aids, these are in the hundreds of dollar range which is affordable to most people. We’ll talk about that a little bit now, but I really want to talk about the mental isolation that happens when you lose your hearing. It’s significant, is it not?

Sreek: Absolutely. A little bit, if I may, just talk about what’s going on and what our research is showing us. The link between hearing loss and possible dementia.

Mark: Sure.

Sreek: We hear with our ears, but we require the brain to interpret the sounds so they can make sense of what we’re hearing and we can understand it. As we get hearing loss, the hair cells in the inner ear are damaged and they can’t transmit signals to the brain as effectively. Imagine as the brain is deprived of hearing these auditory signals, over time we’ll forget how to understand speech, much like your muscle will lose memory if you stop using them. We have found in medical research that it appears that the brain loses the ability to process sound effectively if you wait too long. The danger here that I really want to illustrate is a lot of people associate hearing loss with getting older such as arthritis and other things. That’s true, it is the third most common chronic condition of age-related adulthood. The critical thing here is we have new treatments for it that can actually stave off and really help prevent some of these progressions due to dementia.

Mark: As somebody ages, I’ve been told if you think you have a hearing problem go in earlier than later which is exactly what you’re saying. I went in and let’s just say that I’m somewhere north of 50. No comments, through.

Darrell Wayne: Like the North Pole.

Mark: Well yes, so far north I’m at the South Pole. I went in and I must’ve lowered the demographic range by 30 years at least. We’ll talk about that coming up. Our guest, Dr. Sreek Cherukuri, he is an ENT specialist in Chicago and we’re talking about the link between Alzheimer’s and hearing loss.

This is Late Night Health. I’m Mark Alyn. Join us at latenighthealth.com. I’ll have a picture of the doctor up there and a link to his website for more information as well. Don’t go away. More coming up as Late Night Health continues.

Mark: Late Night Health continues. I’m Mark Alyn. During hour two, we’re going to be talking about the Zika virus update with Dr. Dana Cohen, and what the Zika virus does. Is it dangerous for everybody? We’ve been hearing a lot about how it affects women who are pregnant, and how to avoid it. We’ll be doing that in hour two here on Late Night Health. Right now we return to Dr. Sreek Cherukuri. He is an ENT specialist in Chicago. He is also the creator of hearing aids called MDHearingAid, that are much lower in price than traditional ones. All right, let’s talk about a couple of things. First of all, there’s a hearing test that everybody can take that’s free. Doctor, tell us about that.

Sreek: As you alluded to before the break, hearing test is a way to identify if there’s hearing loss like even you may not be aware of. Medicare actually recommends a hearing test at everybody’s Welcome to Medicare physical examination, which might be someone in their mid-sixties. However, studies have shown that less than fifteen percent of primary care physicians actually screen for hearing. Even though it’s required and suggested, it is often neglected because there’s so many other problems of more pressing nature, such as blood pressure or cholesterol.

Mark: At the same time, hearing is important. To me, it’s as important as blood pressure, because, well maybe because of what I do for a living, talking to people. I need to hear. At the same time, going and getting a hearing test, it can make you feel real old, doctor. Can’t it?

Sreek: Do you know what? I will say that we’ve been conditioned from a young age to see the dentist once or twice a year. We’re pretty good about that. The hearing though, now with this latest data about it’s links to Alzheimer’s and other dementia, the most important thing I think, as we get older is quality of life. If I could tell you a simple test and a simple intervention could help maximize quality of life for the senior years, I don’t think that would be something that people would be opposed to.

Mark: There’s a website for that. We should give that out.

Sreek: Yes, so normally hearing tests are done in an office, such as a doctor’s office or a hearing doctor’s office. For people that may be reluctant or geographically limited, we at MDHearingAid have partnered with the National Hearing Test, which is the only scientifically validated telephone hearing test in America. It’s normally five dollars. For our listeners, it is free if they go to mdhearingaid.com/hearingtest. That is a excellent hearing screening, which can tell you if you have normal hearing, or if you should follow up with a formal hearing test. Again, if we can identify hearing loss earlier and earlier, we can maximize our quality of life, our independence, and hopefully stave off any kinds of dementia.

Mark: It would seem to me also that younger people in their say forties, fifties, even their sixties, getting hearing aids at that age, rather than waiting till they’re in their late seventies or early eighties, it would help them in a number of ways. They get used to the technology. They can hear better. As you’ve already stated, stem any dementia or Alzheimer’s that may develop from being isolated.

Sreek: That’s correct. Certainly for our younger patients and listeners, hearing loss has been shown to negatively impact your performance on your jobs. It affects your income, because you may not seem as sharp at work. You may be passed over for promotions. You may be unemployed. You can imagine if you didn’t have 20/20 vision, you’d probably not go to a job interview until you got that fixed. Hearing less acutely can have the same impact in terms of team meetings and things like that. It certainly has an impact on the job for people that are working. We know unfortunately, many seniors are working until older and older age due to the economy. Secondly, we know there’s a lot of data about that.

Mark: There’s another reason that they work, that they should continue working. That is that a lot of people say, “I’m going to retire and go fishing,” and two weeks later they drop dead because they’re bored.

Sreek: That’s true. Keeping the brain sharp has been shown to help a lot in our overall health.

Mark: Yes, absolutely.

Sreek: A second area it can help younger people is in interpersonal relationships or marriages. If you’re not yelling at each other, certainly the harmony will be much better in the home.

Mark: Absolutely. That makes sense. Briefly in our minute or so that remains to our time, what can somebody … What is that link between Alzheimer’s and hearing loss?

Sreek: As we alluded to earlier, the brain is similar to other parts of the body where you use it or lose it. When it’s not being stimulated by constant sounds, it loses its ability to interpret those sounds. What we have noticed is in people with even mild hearing loss in medical studies, they had a double the risk of developing dementia in the next five to ten years. Severe hearing loss is five times the risk. Those are seriously troubling numbers when the intervention is so easy. You can take the test on our website, www.mdhearingaid.com/hearingtest. Go to an audiologist or an ENT physician. You can get hearing aids that will really help keep the brain sharp and avoid any loss of quality of life.

Mark: Doctor, will you come back in a few weeks and talk about hearing aids?

Sreek: It would be my pleasure.

Mark: I would like to do that, because they are so expensive. Dr. Cherukuri has been our guest. Thank you, sir. mdhearingaid.com/hearingtest, and he will be back in a few weeks. All right. I’m Mark Alyn. Join us at latenighthealth.com. Latenighthealth.com. More coming up. Don’t go away, as Late Night Health continues.