The older we get, the more our bodies begin to fail – after all, the human body was never meant to last forever. When one system begins to decline, however, it can affect the functioning of another, and the result is not always positive. This is especially true when it comes to our hearing.
Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline
Hearing loss is often associated with old age, but research in recent years has also begun to connect it with other conditions, such as dementia and cognitive decline. In fact, studies cited by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) have shown that individuals with hearing impairment have a higher risk of developing dementia than those who have no impairment. Other studies’ results have indicated that hearing loss may accelerate the onset and progression of cognitive decline that often comes simply as a result of aging.
How are hearing loss and dementia connected?
Researchers continue to try to find answers to this question, but here are four prominent theories that may explain the connection, at least in part:
- Common physiological origins – Some researchers believe that hearing loss and dementia may be connected simply because they have a common cause. For example, high blood pressure can affect blood flow to the brain, affecting an individual’s cognitive abilities. It can also affect blood flow to the ears, sometimes resulting in hearing loss.
- Brain stress – Another theory is that when someone is unable to hear well, the brain has to work overtime to try to make sense of their surroundings and react appropriately. This takes energy and resources away from other functions, such as memory or thinking. Over time, this continued overload can cause the brain to become fatigued, negatively affecting its other functions, such as cognition.
- Shrinking brain cells – Brain imaging studies have indicated that individuals with hearing loss often have less gray matter in the section of the brain devoted to hearing and processing auditory stimuli, when compared to the brains of people with normal hearing. While the brain cells don’t necessarily die, they do shrink over time. This could affect cognitive functioning and lead to dementia as well.
- Social isolation – Individuals with hearing loss often shy away from crowds, noisy areas, and places where conversation would be difficult due to the amount of background noise. While this is certainly a way of coping with hearing loss, it can also prevent people from socially interacting with family and friends, a factor that has been shown in past research to potentially lead to dementia or other cognitive decline.
Hearing loss treatment
While further research is needed to determine the exact mechanism by which hearing loss and conditions such as dementia are related, one thing is clear: early diagnosis and treatment of hearing impairments may help prevent or delay the development of other medical conditions associated with hearing loss. Simply being fitted with and wearing hearing aids may be enough to slow or prevent the onset of cognitive decline. Only time and further research will tell for sure, but in the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to get your hearing loss treated!