Adults with hearing loss that is untreated (ie hearing aids or other form of amplification) are more likely to develop cognitive issues, such as dementia and other cognitive declines. This is not to say that it is certain that this population will develop these issues with certainty. Studies performed at John Hopkins University and many others are continuing to pursue answers in this area. There are a few reasons why hearing loss is linked to issues with brain function.
So what does this mean for those suffering from hearing loss?
It is proven that hearing loss can often lead to social isolation and loneliness. For some, hearing loss creates anxiety in their favorite listening environments such as church, family dinners and restaurants because there is often background noise and multiple talkers. This can make communicating and/or appreciating these situations very difficult for someone with hearing loss so that person may choose to avoid the anxiety or frustration. They will, instead, stop going to these events which takes away something that they would otherwise enjoy. This isolates them from their loved ones and others because they are missing out on life’s many little and big moments. This anxiety and/or isolation can lead to depression. There are known links from depression to an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s and dementia. There are also positive links from social interaction and communication to a healthier well-being. It is important to stay involved in hobbies and activities that help keep you learning, happy and even challenged such as dancing, board games, crafts and music.
As previously mentioned, the brain and the ears have to work together as a system. When someone is struggling to hear in an environment due to hearing loss it takes much more effort for them to listen. They may have to strain to hear the speaker, lean in, ask people to repeat or try to fill in the missing pieces of speech that they aren’t hearing. All of this effort to hear is proven to provide less understanding and memory altogether. Imagine being in an important meeting with multiple talkers while also struggling to hear. At the end of that meeting, you may feel exhausted and left with little comprehension of what all was said.
Having a hearing loss increases the “cognitive load” or work the brain must do to be involved.
Another theory that is still being researched involves the physical size of the brain. Our brains shrink as we age and hearing loss may be a contributing factor to that brain atrophy. If parts of our brain, like for hearing, are note being stimulated than the brain reduces in size as it is not needed for those functions. If these areas are active through the use of hearing aids, it might allow the brain to return to its original size and purpose. Imaging studies of the brain through more research are identifying these factors and possible outcomes.
It is a common misconception that hearing is only about your ears.
Hearing, listening and understanding all rely on the ears but the brain is an integral part of making this system whole. It is important to adapt a healthy lifestyle for your overall well-being including getting enough sleep and exercise, having a healthy diet and taking care of your body as it begins to age. Some aspects of your health, like hearing, can be easier to ignore or procrastinate but they may play an important role in the overall function of your brain.