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Hearing Loss & Dementia

Some people may consider some conditions such as hearing loss and dementia as unfortunate side effects of aging. However, as researchers devote more resources to understanding the aging process, it has become clear that there is a connection between hearing loss and dementia, and by care for your hearing loss, you may be able to reduce your dementia risk factors.

The Brain’s Connection Between Hearing Loss & Dementia

It has only been within recent years that researchers have started to connect hearing loss as a risk factor for dementia. In a landmark study, researchers had a cohort of participants take both hearing evaluations and cognitive tests.

Those who were shown to have hearing loss of at least 25 dB—mild hearing loss—or more, were found to score lower on their cognitive tests. Tests done over a three year period showed that those with hearing loss progressively scored lower and lower on their cognitive tests, while those with normal hearing and hearing loss treated with hearing aids scored better.

As it was clear that there was a connection between hearing loss and dementia, further studies investigated to see if there was a brain connection between the two issues. One study definitively showed that hearing impairment impacted the brain in several ways. Some of the key ways were:

  • Grey matter reduction – One of the important things that the researchers discovered is that there was a significant reduction in the volume of the brain’s grey matter. As the brain shrunk due to a lack of receiving sound input—due to hearing loss—other structures in the brain struggled to function correctly.
  • Brain restructuring – As the volume of the brain shrunk due to hearing loss, other structures of the brain had to take over for functions that are lost as the brain atrophies. This restructuring is particularly hard on the less malleable brains of senior adults and often leads to cognitive decline.
  • Cognitive strain – Untreated hearing loss often leaves people straining to hear and understand what others are saying. As the researchers found, this greater cognitive strain to hear and understand others led to a depletion in available mental energy, making other functions more difficult, such as remembering things.

Along with the brain’s connection to hearing loss and dementia, there are other factors to consider. One that we may take for granted is how hearing loss can lead to social isolation, which is another risk factor for cognitive decline.

Social Isolation Due To Hearing Loss Contributes To Dementia Risk

It can be difficult at first to see how hearing loss can correlate with social isolation, but consider this example situation:

Say that you have untreated mild hearing loss. At first, you may not even really notice that you don’t hear sounds like birds chirping in the morning or the hum of your electronics. Maybe you have to turn the volume up a bit higher and occasionally ask a friend to repeat what they said. But, untreated hearing loss can be progressive, and as your hearing loss develops to more severe cases, things can change.

Instead of needing people to occasionally repeat themselves, most everyone sounds like they are mumbling or speaking too softly. Social gatherings with family and friends become uncomfortable as sounds reverberate oddly and you have difficulty hearing anyone. Slowly, you may start excluding yourself more and more from socializing, as your hearing loss increases your discomfort. However, this hearing loss-induced social isolation can lead to dementia.

In a study on social isolation and dementia, dementia-free participants were monitored, both of the human and mice variety. Those individuals who had fewer social relationships and struggled with loneliness had much higher incidents of cognitive decline.

As you control for social isolation as a potential dementia risk factor, it is clear that having your hearing loss treated can assist in helping you not become socially isolated. However, along with receiving treatment for hearing loss, your annual hearing evaluation can also screen for dementia.

Hearing Evaluations Can Help Screen For Dementia

When you consider being screened for dementia, most people would consider their primary care physician as the person most likely to catch early warning signs. However, an annual hearing evaluation test with a doctor of audiology can be effective dementia screening.

For one thing, a doctor of audiology has greater training when it comes to hearing loss and its various side effects, as their greater education allows the audiologist to specialize their field of knowledge. That way, if you have other risk factors for dementia as well as hearing loss, an audiologist can tailor your hearing evaluation to check for signs of dementia.

Also, during a hearing evaluation, there are tests which require speech and word recognition. Since research has shown that cognitive decline has an impact on your brain’s central speech processing, a doctor of audiology will be able to see the signs during the speech and word recognition part of your hearing evaluation.

Should there be signs that you have hearing loss and difficulty understanding the word recognition portion of your hearing test, hearing aids may help to prevent cognitive decline and could assist with reversing dementia.

Hearing Aids Can Assist With Dementia Prevention

As hearing loss has a strong connection with dementia, it only makes sense to treat hearing loss with the appropriate hearing aids.

Working with a hearing healthcare specialist to have hearing aids tailored to your specific hearing loss needs can go a long way in preventing dementia and assisting with associated risk factors like social isolation. But, while hearing aids as a dementia tool is obvious, it is unclear how much hearing aids can do in the event of dementia already being present.

Currently, researchers support the potential ability for hearing aids to help reverse cognitive decline. This reversal is based on the plasticity of the human brain. Our brains are continually making new connections and undergoing minor restructuring, so researchers hypothesize that with the help of hearing aids to amplify sounds, the brain may be able to correct some of the negative restructurings that come with untreated hearing loss.

Ideally, instead of banking on hearing aids helping reverse dementia, you will have regular yearly hearing tests. That way, your hearing loss can be caught early, and you can head off many of the negative side effects of untreated hearing loss as well as its connection to dementia.

Overall, with greater consideration given to your hearing healthcare, you may be able to alleviate your dementia risk factors and better protect yourself as you age.