A Link Between Hearing Loss & Dementia

Cyndi Connolly
Latest posts by Cyndi Connolly (see all)

If you have ever been close to anyone who has suffered from dementia, you already know how devastating the effects can be. It is common for people with dementia to lose short and long-term memory. Eventually, it can be difficult to complete even small everyday tasks and forget familiar faces. Currently, there is no cure for dementia, however, researchers have identified certain factors which make you more susceptible towards the risk of developing dementia earlier or at all. One of these factors is hearing loss.

Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline

Hearing loss is an issue that begins in the ear but ultimately affects communication. This condition can often start slowly, to the point where you may not even realize you have a problem. However, even a mild case of hearing loss can start to impact communication. It is often certain tones which are affected first leaving gaps in conversation or making only people with certain pitches difficult to hear. This forces your brain to work overtime to fill in the gaps in speech that weren’t received by the ears. This not only leaves an individual exhausted after a casual social interaction but can start to cause cognitive strain and decline. 

How Hearing Loss Can Affect the Brain

study led by Jonathan Peelle, at Washington University in St. Louis, explored how hearing loss can actually cause brain shrinkage and cognitive decline. The study examined brain studies of older adults as they underwent brain scans while listening to sentences of varying complexity. The study also tested for “gray matter” which is the regions of the brain which contributes to controlling muscle and sensory perception. Sensory perception includes seeing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, self-control and hearing.

The study results reveal that the brain cells in patients with hearing loss were less active when they were presented with complex sentences as well as less gray matter in the auditory areas of the brain. Peelle suspects that the effects of hearing loss accumulate over time or as age progresses. Peelle also found that older adults with hearing loss were less able to comprehend speech than younger adults with hearing loss.

Studies on Hearing Loss and Accelerated Cognitive Decline

A Johns Hopkins study examines cognitive impairment scores in about 2,000 seniors over six years and found that those with hearing loss had a faster decline. The study participants all had a healthy cognition when the study began but by the study’s conclusion, seniors with hearing loss were found to be 24% more likely to suffer a cognitive impairment.

A separate study led by Dr. Sharon Curhan, a doctor and epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, explored self-reporting on memory loss from test subjects to measure hearing loss’s effect. The study pooled from over 10,000 men over age 62, over eight years. The results revealed that those with hearing loss were more likely to also report “perceived” memory loss and cognitive decline. It was found that even an early and mild case of hearing loss increased the risk of cognitive decline by 30 percent and with every 20 decibels in hearing loss the percentage rose another 10 percent. 

How Treating Your Hearing Loss Can Help Fight Dementia

Understanding that even a slight case of hearing loss can affect the risk for dementia is alarming. Because it is difficult to detect hearing loss, annual hearing tests are recommended, especially once you reach 60 years old. While there is no way to reverse most cases of hearing loss, it can be treated with hearing aids. Hearing aids can be programmed to pick up the specific sounds you struggle with and amplify them, so they are audible to you again. This can reduce the amount of energy your brain requires to hear and respond to your friends, family members and co-workers. This ultimately can reduce stress and fatigue caused by constant communication issues, keeping your mind engaged, active and quick. 

Hearing Loss Treatment

If you or someone you care for is struggling with hearing loss, the sooner you identify and begin treating this issue, the more you can decrease your risk of the devastating effects of dementia. Make an appointment today so you can ensure you can stay active and engaged in the life you love tomorrow.