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By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition
Many people don’t understand the process of medical and scientific research and how different hypotheses are developed and tested, using different methods in different human populations with animal studies when possible, until a consensus is reached. This was how researchers–including doctors, epidemiologists, researchers using animal models, and scientists doing basic research at the cellular, molecular, and genetic levels–figured out that cigarette smoke causes cancer and many other diseases, and how it does this. Despite the broad scientific and public health consensus, there are still skeptics, such as those at the conservative Heartland Institute, who say there is still doubt about whether smoking causes lung cancer. There is also a Flat Earth Society. Many Americans think that evolution is an unproven theory despite more than a century of research and strong evidence supporting evolution.
For the rest of us who believe in evidence-based science and evidence-based social and economic policies, our understanding of reality is always evolving based on the evidence. Sometimes something long thought to be true is found not to be correct after all. In medicine, one of the best examples may be ulcers in the stomach and small intestine, which for decades were thought to be caused by too much stomach acid but were found to be caused by bacteria. Australians Barry Marshall and J. Robin Warren won the Nobel Prize in 2005 for making this discovery. But most of the time an early hypothesis is confirmed by one study, and then another, and then by studies in animal models, and then by basic science research, until a broad consensus is reached.
This is what is happening with the hypothesis that hearing loss is associated, probably causally, with dementia. Dr. Frank Lin at Johns Hopkins University may be the best-known researcher in this field but other researchers in other countries are studying the same question. This report from New Zealand discusses what is being done there. And this report from the UK discusses research presented there.
It’s always good to have confirmation of research by different researchers using different techniques in different populations. Such confirmation helps validate initial findings in one population and helps move our understanding forward. We know that noise exposure causes hearing loss. If hearing loss is shown to be causally associated with the development of dementia, then preventing hearing loss should help to also prevent dementia. One theory is that the brain needs input to maintain function, and without auditory input and/or social connections, brain function declines. Another theory is that whatever degenerative process causes hearing loss also causes loss of mental function. Ongoing studies, providing hearing aids to those with hearing loss but not to others and then measuring intellectual function over time, may elucidate the cause-effect relationship. Regardless, we don’t need to wait for more evidence for the link. Preserving one’s hearing should be enough reason to avoid loud noise or to wear ear plugs if you can’t.