People often view hearing loss as an isolated health issue. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t the case – hearing loss has a big impact on everything from your quality of life to your earning power. There are even major health risks that accompany untreated hearing loss including, most seriously, an elevated risk of dementia and cognitive decline.
In fact, among people with untreated moderate to severe hearing loss, cognitive disorders become five times as likely. The risk of the best known cognitive disorder, dementia, also increases greatly. A clear link has also been established between untreated hearing loss and Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia.
What’s the Connection?
The link between hearing loss and cognitive issues isn’t intuitive at first, but it makes sense when you understand how our sense of hearing works – and what happens when it doesn’t! Most permanent hearing loss is based in damage to very small sensory cells within the inner ear. These sensory cells are called “hair cells” and they are responsible for detecting sound vibrations in the air and transmitting a signal to the brain to be interpreted.
We are born with thousands of hair cells in each ear, but these delicate cells lack the ability to regenerate or repair themselves if they are damaged, so the hair cells we are born with are meant to last us a lifetime. They can be permanently damaged by a number of factors including loud noise exposure and infections. When we lose functioning hair cells our hearing loses some of its acuity. This is why permanent hearing loss often develops gradually, as hearing damage accrues.
When hearing loss is left untreated it has a compounded effect on our brain. While the first part of hearing is based in the mechanics of the ear, we rely on our mind to interpret incoming sounds quickly and fluidly. When sound signals arrive incomplete, as is the case with hearing loss, our brain faces the challenge of parsing sound based on context clues. This not only requires more effort, it is also slower and less accurate. Picture trying to correctly fill in a crossword puzzle while missing a third of the clues – while it is possible to reach the right solution, it is much more frustrating to solve and errors are much more likely.
Not only does hearing loss impact the speed and accuracy of our hearing, it also creates fundamental shifts in our cognitive behavior and induces cognitive strain. In order to interpret sound when hearing loss is present, the brain cannot simply rely on its normal auditory pathways and patterns. Instead, extra cognitive effort is required. Hearing loss pulls cognitive focus away from other tasks and shortchanges other mental tasks. This is known as cognitive strain. Because of the effort required to interpret speech and sound, untreated hearing loss can
be physically exhausting.
Cognitive Decline and Hearing Loss
Multiple studies have shown that untreated hearing loss contributes to a person’s risk of dementia and other cognitive issues. In a 12 year study from John Hopkins University established clear connections between the degree of hearing loss and risk of dementia. Mild hearing loss came with a doubled risk, moderate hearing loss increased risk threefold and hearing loss that was severe or greater led to a risk of dementia five times higher than the population with normal hearing.
This connection seems to be heavily based on the cognitive burden that hearing loss creates. By rearranging mental patterns and commandeering attention away from other tasks, hearing loss forces an imbalance in the brain. Persistent cognitive stress makes it hard to perform other tasks well and can even lead to falling and physical accidents.
Treating Hearing Loss
It can be intimidating to confront hearing loss, but effective treatment is available. Your hearing specialist can help you find hearing solutions that can dramatically improve your comprehension and reduce cognitive stress. Hearing aid technology is a fundamental part of treating hearing loss. Discrete and powerful, your hearing aids should be tailored to your hearing challenges and fitted to your ear canal. Through digital sound processing, hearing aids can boost your hearing where you need it and make speech comprehension dramatically easier. Using hearing aids not only improves your quality of life, it also improves your cognitive performance.