Over the past few years, multiple studies have found a link between hearing loss and an increased risk for dementia. Whether it’s a causational or correlational relationship is still being researched, but the relationship is there. Across all studies, people with hearing loss showed greater signs of cognitive decline.
There are three main reasons hearing loss could be linked to dementia—social isolation, an uneven strain on the brain’s cognitive resources, and a change in the brain’s natural function.
It’s been long known that maintaining social relationships along with face-to-face communication are significant weapons against cognitive decline. According to Bryan James, of the Rush Alzheimer’s disease Center in Chicago, the human brain evolved to manage about 150 social relationships, and when we stop managing an adequate amount of relationships, that part of the brain can atrophy. Also, healthy social relationships reduce chronic stress, which is linked to cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s, and dementia.
How does hearing loss fit into this? Well, hearing loss is naturally isolating. Even in a room full of people, a person with untreated hearing loss can quickly become disconnected. If a person cannot hear what is being said in a conversation, the conversation quickly fades.
Over long periods of time, the undue strain of trying to hear and recognize each word eventually wins out over the desire to participate in social interactions. Not only does untreated hearing loss disengage the listener, but it also places an uneven amount of pressure on the brain’s overall cognitive resources.
This strain may not seem important, but it reduces the brain’s capability to perform simultaneous, and oftentimes related, tasks. Spending too much mental energy on trying to hear what’s being said, whether consciously or unconsciously, prevents that person from storing the event as a short-term memory. Hearing loss not only interferes with listening ability, but also with our overall ability to process information.
Even mild hearing loss has been shown to get in the way of processing and storing quickly communicated speech.
Since hearing is actually the brain’s response to auditory signals, hearing happens in the brain rather than in the ears. Once these signals are weakened and consequentially disrupted, other areas of the brain are called in to help. As a response, the brain begins rerouting other areas of itself in an attempt to compensate for the information being lost to hearing loss.
Even if what is being is successfully comprehended, as hearing decreases further and the inability to hear becomes the new normal, it modifies how the brain organizes activity, creating a change in the brain’s natural function. In multiple Johns Hopkins studies, hearing loss has been linked to an accelerated rate of brain tissue loss and this could be a result of altered brain function over time. Age naturally shrinks the brain, but hearing loss may accelerate this process.
Importance of Treating Hearing Loss
It is important to remember that hearing loss doesn’t automatically equate to dementia. But dementia isn’t the only reason treating hearing loss is important; it improves a person’s overall quality of life. When hearing loss is treated, a person’s cognitive improvement can be very significant, even when cognitive decline isn’t directly associated with dementia.
According to Duke University’s Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy as quoted by AARP, the benefits of treating hearing loss are twice that of any cognitive-enhancing drugs currently on the market, and should be given utmost attention when treating any cognitive issues related to age. If that’s not enough motivation to treat hearing loss, treating hearing loss also strengthens social bonds, restores relationships, and can make a person feel years younger.
Max Gottlieb is the content manager for Senior Planning and Prime Medical Alert. Prime Medical Alert provides medical alert systems to help seniors maintain their independence. Senior Planning is a free service designed to help seniors find long term care.