Can treating hearing loss help stave off cognitive decline?
Posted by Dr. Stephen Glasser on October 02, 2020
We all want to maintain our mental sharpness as we get older. Dementia, Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline are conditions everyone hopes to avoid.
A growing body of research has shown that hearing loss plays a role in our ability to stay mentally sharp as we age. In fact, in a 2018 review of the research, it was concluded that untreated hearing loss increased the risk of dementia by 50 percent.
While researchers admit the science is still inconclusive on exactly why untreated hearing loss increases dementia risk, they do offer three probable reasons.
Hearing loss leads to social isolation
Untreated hearing loss has long been linked to increased social isolation
and loneliness, which studies have shown increases the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Think about it — if you struggle to hear, you’ll be more likely to withdraw from social activities or situations where hearing plays a big role.
Hearing loss shifts your cognitive load
As hearing becomes more difficult, your brain has to work harder to register and comprehend what you’re listening to. This steals energy needed for memory and thinking. Scientists refer to this as the “cognitive load theory.”
Imagine your brain as having a finite amount of fuel. As hearing loss increases, you use more “fuel” to comprehend and makes sense of what you’re listening to, meaning you have less fuel for tasks like memory and decision-making.
Hearing loss accelerates brain shrinkage
Finally, hearing loss is shown to accelerate brain atrophy or shrinkage.
Yes, believe it or not, our brains shrink as we age. But researchers at Johns Hopkins found that people with impaired hearing lost more brain tissue
per year than peers with normal hearing — likely due to atrophy from lack of stimulation.
So, can treating hearing loss help keep us mentally sharp?
No evidence has yet proven that hearing loss treatment can prevent cognitive decline — though Johns Hopkins University is currently undergoing a controlled trial — but two studies strongly suggest it may help.
One, in 2015, studied subjects over a 25 year period and found that those with self-reported hearing loss who did not wear hearing aids showed evidence of accelerated cognitive decline, while those with hearing loss who did wear hearing aids had no more cognitive decline than their normal-hearing peers.
A 2017 study was even more interesting. The study, conducted by The Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention and Care, concluded that managing or treating hearing loss in mid-life is one of nine things you can do to help prevent dementia. And — more importantly — was the number one risk factor they recommended you could modify to “reduce the incidence of dementia or substantially delay its onset.”
In fact, researchers suggest that treating hearing loss treatment could prevent up to 9 percent of 47 million dementia cases in the world.
Wearing hearing aids is the most effective treatment for hearing loss
This link between hearing loss and cognitive decline — and the studies above — should give everyone added incentive to treat hearing loss and not ignore common hear loss signs.
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If you’re ready to treat your hearing loss and take proactive charge of your cognitive health, we can help. Call or schedule an appointment today.