Hearing Loss – Impact on Cognition

By Anita Giles
MS, CCC-A Audiologist
Physicians Hearing Center

“Happy Birthday to You!”

Don’t you love the sound of this song when your family and friends celebrate you and how important you are to them? However, there comes a time when you want to stop counting the number of candles on the cake. Reality sets in and you realize that things are changing, and your body doesn’t work as it once did.

You can replace some body parts, but you can’t replace your brain. How can we protect the brain and keep it functioning at its optimal level? How can we maintain the brain’s functions such as reasoning, memory, attention, and engagement as these are essential for a full and independent life? All these cognitive skills require the use of neural connections within our brain. Unless these neural connections are stimulated and “exercised”, their potency can diminish, and our cognitive skills can suffer.

As we age, we worry about memory loss, difficulty focusing, short attention span, ability to learn and retain new information, and the frightening thought of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s. Although cognitive decline is often seen in the normal aging process, there are other factors which may contribute to the rate of deterioration. Hearing loss is one of those factors.

One of the most important things that we can do for brain health is to exercise, mentally and physically. The adage “use it or lose it” very much applies to brain and hearing health. Scientists have established a link between hearing loss and cognitive function. People with untreated hearing loss have been found to show cognitive decline 20-40% faster than someone without hearing loss. The National Institute on Deafness says “treating hearing loss is one the few proactive steps people can take to lower their risk for cognitive decline later in life”.

Researchers have several theories about how auditory deprivation results in cognitive decline. When fewer sounds are making their way to the brain, the brain reacts by shifting how it operates and is structured by shrinking (atrophy). The ability to make sense of sound information is lost. Mental overload happens when untreated hearing loss causes the brain to work harder, and you must involve thinking and memory to help you. Social isolation caused by the inability to hear results in less stimulation to the brain. HL impacts the same areas of the brain involved in cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s.

Identifying and treating hearing loss is of vital importance. Because hearing is brain activity and involves more than just the ears, it is essential that hearing loss be identified and treated early and effectively. Most people have a health regimen of regular checkups and routine tests. This regimen should include a hearing checkup. Audiologists are trained professionals that specialize in evaluating hearing and providing solutions for hearing loss. The proper use of hearing aids can lower your risk factors for dementia. Researchers found that people not using hearing aids had a higher risk of dementia and depression. People with hearing loss who used hearing aids experienced cognitive decline at a rate similar to people without hearing loss. How healthy is your brain hearing?

Wei et al. 2017 Hearing Impairment, Mild Cognitive Impairment, and Dementia: A Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies.

Amieva et al.2015, Self -Reported Hearing loss, Hearing Aids, and Cognitive Decline in Elderly Adults
Webinar: Hearing loss and associated comorbidities: What do we know? The Hearing Review (2017, May 31) www.OticonUSA.com

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