Living with hearing loss can be incredibly frustrating. It can also be detrimental to your health. In fact, numerous studies have suggested a strong link between untreated hearing loss and dementia as well as other forms of cognitive decline. Fortunately, research also indicates that the use of medical devices that improve hearing, like hearing aids and cochlear implants, can help combat this serious issue.
Hearing Loss and Dementia
According to AARP, hearing loss is a problem for more than 48 million Americans, and two-thirds of Americans in their 70s have at least some hearing loss. While it is often shrugged off as a part of aging, that dismissive attitude is being reconsidered in light of the numerous scientific studies linking untreated hearing loss to cognitive troubles. As AARP reports, researchers have uncovered evidence that untreated hearing loss seems to speed up normal age-related cognitive decline. In addition, people with moderate untreated hearing loss have triple the risk of developing dementia compared to those with normal hearing.
Thankfully, scientists believe that treating hearing loss can make a huge difference. A study cited by AARP followed individuals with profound deafness in one ear who received a cochlear implant and auditory rehabilitation. Within one year, testing showed distinct improvements in their cognitive scores.
Explaining the Link
Could difficulty hearing contribute to cognitive decline? Why do hearing loss and dementia appear to be linked? Several theories currently exist to explain this phenomenon.
Shared Risk Factors
One potential connection involves the possibility that hearing loss and dementia have one or more shared physiological risk factors. However, scientists generally account for risk factors like high blood pressure when constructing their studies, so this explanation may be inadequate.
Another theory suggests that the cognitive load caused by hearing loss may produce undue strain on the brain’s ability to function and draw resources away from its efforts to create memories. Basically, the idea here is that the constant effort involved in struggling to understand auditory information forces the brain to work so hard that it compromises some functions of memory. So when a hearing aid or cochlear implant improves someone’s ability to hear, it also frees up the brain’s resources for cognitive tasks like constructing memories.
Scientists know that untreated hearing loss causes structural changes in the brain. Brain imaging studies have revealed that adults with hearing loss have less gray matter in the part of the brain responsible for receiving and processing sounds. It appears that certain brain cell structures actually shrink if they are lacking stimulation. Could these structural changes contribute to dementia and cognitive decline? Researchers are currently exploring this theory.
Hearing loss is hard on both the people struggling with this condition and those who interact with them. When conversation is a constant trial, people often begin to avoid situations where conversing is expected. As a result, individuals with hearing loss are often socially isolated. Unfortunately, social isolation has long been considered a risk factor for dementia and cognitive decline.
The Benefits of Treating Hearing Loss
Some people refuse to get help for their hearing loss because they are unaware or in denial. Others worry that wearing hearing aids will make them appear old or weak (unaware that hearing aids these days are often incredibly tiny and discreet). The costs involved and simple vanity can also prevent people from getting help. If you’ve been putting off your visit to an audiologist, don’t wait any longer. Treating hearing loss can provide all of the following benefits:
- A decreased risk for dementia and other forms of cognitive decline
- Potential improvements in memory and the ability to learn new tasks
- A reduction in depression, anxiety, and paranoia
- Increased alertness and function
- Improved ability to avoid threats to personal safety like accidents and falls
- Easier socialization and reduced isolation
Hearing loss is a fact of life for many people, but that doesn’t mean that you have to live with it. If you suspect that hearing loss is troubling you or someone you love and you live near Limon or Pueblo, Colorado, contact Apex Audiology. Dr. William F. Herholtz can conduct a simple hearing test, increase your understanding of your hearing loss, and offer solutions for treatment. To get started, please call us at 719-569-5000 or schedule an appointment online. We look forward to hearing from you!