Ever notice how invigorated you feel after an animated conversation with a friend? Engaging with others keeps our minds active and alert. When we lose the ability to engage due to hearing loss, it can not only make us feel isolated—it can also lessen our cognitive abilities.
Hearing loss has long been considered a natural and relatively benign symptom of aging. But recent research shows that over time, untreated hearing loss may put patients at a higher risk of cognitive decline. A landmark 2011 study by Johns Hopkins researchers led by Dr. Frank Lin reported on the hearing and cognitive status of 639 participants tracked by Lin’s group for over a decade.
Lin’s group found that participants with hearing loss were at greater risk of developing dementia. For those above age 60, the two were linked at least one third of the time. Participants with advanced hearing loss had correspondingly greater levels of decline.
Further studies have confirmed a correlation between hearing loss and dementia. Although there is no evidence that one problem causes the other, consensus is forming among researchers that the two are often associated. Now, they are asking how.
Many theories have been introduced to explain the physiological connection between impaired hearing and dementia. One link may be that when we strain to hear, our brain’s resources are diverted from functions such as memory, a phenomenon referred to as cognitive load. Another explanation may be that another medical problem, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, is exacerbating both conditions.
Other studies have suggested that hearing loss changes the structure of the brain. When gray matter is not stimulated by sound, it can shrink, leading to impaired function. Making matters worse, people experiencing hearing loss are often reluctant to socialize, afraid that encounters will be challenging or awkward. Lack of social stimulation can worsen decline.
It is important to clarify that not all people experiencing hearing loss will develop dementia. But as with other areas of general health, it’s always best to be proactive. The earlier you address a hearing problem, the more likely you are to be able maintain your usual routines, continue important relationships and retain cognitive functioning throughout your life.
Some people experiencing hearing loss fear that a hearing aid will make them look “old” or draw attention by making loud noises. Thankfully, hearing instruments have come a long way since the clunky early models. Many modern hearing aids are small and unobtrusive, and an audiologist can help you select the ones that look and feel the best to you.
If you are having problems hearing, consider meeting with an audiologist to discuss your options. By confronting the problem sooner rather than later, you can get more out of life today and for years to come.