Dr. Cynthia L. Ellison, Au.D

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When you live with hearing loss, unexpected challenges can come up every day. From navigating a new store to keeping up in conversation with your friends, hearing loss can throw a curveball into your life. While you might easily notice some of the changes hearing loss makes in your day-to-day life, what is harder to see are some of the deeper health consequences of untreated hearing loss.

Hearing loss that goes unaddressed puts a strain on our whole body, especially on our cognitive skills. Researchers are now finding established links between hearing loss and dementia. People with untreated hearing loss are more susceptible to developing dementia as they age. Conversely, treating hearing loss in dementia patients has led to cognitive improvements while grappling with the disease. While the full picture of how hearing loss and dementia relate to each other is still being researched, much of the correlation is based in the mental strain untreated hearing loss produces.

Dementia and Hearing Loss

Dementia is a family of disorders that are all based in a pronounced cognitive decline or impaired cognitive functioning. Alzheimer’s Disease is perhaps the most well-known type of dementia, where memory, recall and reasoning are all compromised.

Dementia’s connection to untreated hearing issues has been firmly established in the past decade. A study from John Hopkins University published in 2011 tracked over 800 subjects with hearing loss for over a decade. This landmark study found that the greater degree of hearing loss present, the greater the risk for developing dementia.

Why would hearing loss and dementia be related? Much of it has to do with ways that hearing loss changes our brain and its functioning, where dementia issues are rooted. Hearing loss changes how our brain works, and physically reduces some parts of the brain that may play a significant role in dementia. Hearing loss can also encourage a change in social patterns that lead to isolation which can exacerbate cognitive issues. Finally, hearing loss and dementia may also be correlated because they can both stem from a third health issue, such as high blood pressure.

The Cognitive Side of Hearing Loss

Hearing isn’t just in your ears. When our body senses sound waves in the air, the process involves an intricate coordination of sensory cells, electrical impulses and the neural connections it takes to gather meaning from sound. In our ears, the middle and inner ear have sensory mechanisms for picking up the vibrations of sound waves moving through air.

The inner ear, where most permanent hearing loss occurs, is home to tiny hair cells attuned to different frequencies of sound waves. Hearing loss, often noise related, happens when these tiny, delicate sensory cells are damaged and taken out of commission. Less functioning hair cells means a reduced perception of a sound.

Once a sound wave has been detected, the hair cells perform the job of converting that vibration into an electrical signal that can be read by the brain. The signal travels neural pathways to the auditory cortex of the brain and is then processed -nearly instantaneously- into meaning.

When hearing loss is present in the inner ear, those problems get passed on to the cognitive process of hearing. As we pick up less sound information from our surroundings, the brain is being asked to make meaning from often incomplete information. Neural shortcuts the brain uses to recognize familiar sounds become ineffective as hearing loss progresses, and the mind has to chart new patterns to help draw out meaning from noise.

All this means that the process of hearing is slower and less accurate when untreated hearing loss exists. It also means that the brain uses more cognitive resources than it would normally. Focus and concentration get pulled away from other mental tasks and processes to give extra attention to interpreting sound. In some people, the cognitive reordering and strain this creates may well be a trigger for dementia. 

Treating Hearing Loss with Franklin Hearing Center

Neither dementia nor hearing loss have a cure, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t good news. Recent research from France is now finding that treating hearing loss can curtail some of the dementia risk. Other studies are also finding that when hearing loss treatment is provided to patients with existing dementia, their cognitive abilities improve markedly.

The earlier hearing loss is treated, the more effective treatment can be and the less hearing loss limits your life and health. When you have a hearing issue, it’s important to talk to a hearing specialist about it – like our great team at Franklin Hearing Center.