A Link Between Hearing Loss & Dementia

A Link Between Hearing Loss & Dementia

In Hearing Loss by Dr. Jason Leyendecker

Dr. Jason Leyendecker
Latest posts by Dr. Jason Leyendecker (see all)

If you’re one of the millions of Americans suffering from age-related hearing loss, there may be another reason you’ll want to take a new look at hearing aids.

It seems there’s an ever-expanding list of the consequences of untreated hearing loss. Fatigue is one that most of us are familiar with as it progresses evenly with hearing loss itself. Faster progression of age-related hearing loss can also be an early indicator of an underlying cardiovascular issue. As time passes, those with untreated hearing loss are at higher risk for accidents and physical injuries, loneliness, depression and social isolation.

It’s also become clear that untreated hearing loss significantly increases the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. For those with mild hearing loss, the risk is doubled. With moderate hearing loss, a person is three times more likely to develop dementia. And a person with profound hearing loss is five times more likely than someone with normal hearing to develop dementia.

Of course, it’s not a guarantee. Experts indicate that those who are otherwise in good physical health need not be overly concerned; if your risk for dementia is low, five times that risk might still be very low. But there is a good reason to get as much information to the brain as possible, and hearing aids are one important way of doing that.

Why Does Hearing Loss Lead to Dementia?

One important theory is the idea of “cognitive load.” This is why, in the short term, hearing loss is so fatiguing. When we can’t hear properly, we give the brain a lot of extra work in trying to determine what is being said. Our brains already work very hard at interpreting the meaning behind words, committing passing moments to short-term memory, formulating responses, etc. When we also task them with taking bits and pieces of information from speech and putting the puzzle togethertrying to figure out whether the word was “beach” or “teach,” and reading facial expressions while also reading lips—our ability to do everything else is a little bit diminished. We already know that this causes less information to be committed to memory, and over time it may contribute to the deeply compromised short-term memory we associate with dementia.

Another theory involves physical changes in the brain. We know from scans of the brains of people with severe hearing loss that the auditory cortex “shrinks.” It’s not that the brain cells die or go away, but that they take up less space in the brain than they once did. The network smushes together more, with less grey matter between the neurons. The auditory cortex is also associated with memory, so this deterioration could eventually lead to dementia.

A third theory has to do with social isolation. There’s long been a correlation noted between social isolation and an increased risk for cognitive decline and dementia. Similarly, we know that hearing loss frequently leads to loneliness and social isolation. Loneliness has recently become a research hotspot, it’s been said that the physical consequences of prolonged loneliness are about the same as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

It’s not known positively yet whether getting hearing aids can reverse the process of cognitive decline. A French study found that cochlear implants, after one year and paired with a twice-weekly training session, helped 80% of the participants with the worst measured cognitive impairment to significantly improve their scores on a cognitive test.

How to Prevent Hearing Loss and Dementia

While there is no guaranteed outcome for anyone, there is significant evidence suggesting that adopting an anti-inflammatory diet, such as the Alternate Meditteranean diet (AMED) or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), can prevent or slow the progress of age-related hearing loss. Interestingly, these diets have also been shown to reduce the risk of dementia, independently of hearing loss.

If you’re currently one of the millions of Americans with untreated hearing loss, make an appointment for a hearing test today and see what hearing aids can do for you. 91% of those who get hearing aids are satisfied after one year, and study after study confirms that hearing aids can help to prevent a number of age-related complications. Hearing aids today are better than ever before, and most companies offer a trial period and warranty. You’ve got nothing to lose and a world of sound to gain!