Hearing Loss & Cognitive Decline

Hearing Loss & Cognitive Decline

Olga Lis, MS, CCC-A
Latest posts by Olga Lis, MS, CCC-A (see all)

Managing hearing loss isn’t just about improving your hearing. Your hearing loss can put stress on many different facets of your health and quality of life, some that might not be immediately obvious. For instance, untreated hearing loss has been shown to decrease your earning power and increase your risk of depression. 

One of the most serious health effects linked to untreated hearing loss is an elevated risk of cognitive decline including dementia. Affecting reasoning, memory, learning, focusing and decision-making, cognitive decline is a serious health issue with no known cure. Let’s take a look at what connects untreated hearing loss and cognitive performance issues and how healthy hearing can help. 

Cognitive Stress

How well you hear is fundamentally tied to the cognitive processes of your brain. When our ears pick up the vibrations of sound waves in the air, they send an electrical signal to the brain to be interpreted. Our cognition performs the near instantaneous task of deciphering the meaning and direction of an incoming sound signal. When we have undamaged hearing, our ability to hear feels effortless and goes practically unnoticed.

When hearing loss is present, hearing doesn’t feel nearly as easy – because it isn’t. Usually hearing loss means that the brain is receiving significantly less information from the ear about incoming soundwaves. Instead of being able to recognize the patterns and meanings of sounds instantaneously, the partial sound information requires more work to be comprehended. The greater your hearing loss, the more effort is required to parse an incoming noise. 

Hearing with hearing loss means constantly trying to fill in the blanks – like doing a crossword puzzle with missing clues. This takes extra effort and extra time, and it can be difficult and frustrating to try to keep up with the pace of everyday conversation or navigate noisy settings. It also takes focus away from other cognitive tasks, using more of your mental resources with slower and less accurate results. 

This all has the result of producing a near-constant mental strain on your cognitive performance. When untreated hearing loss is present, your brain cannot rely on its recognized shortcuts for hearing, and pulls your mental resources towards the task of hearing, disrupting the patterns for other cognitive functions as well. This persistent cognitive stress is widely thought to be at the core of the connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline. 

Dementia and Cognitive Decline

Cognitive problems can disrupt nearly every aspect of your life. While mild cognitive impairment is characterized by occasional “slips” in thought, reasoning, and memory, severe cognitive decline is known as dementia and takes a profound toll on your quality of life. Patients with dementia are seldom able to manage everyday life unassisted and may experience mood changes and severe memory loss. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia.

Hearing loss is measured by degrees, from mild hearing loss to profound. All degrees of untreated hearing loss are linked to higher rates of dementia and worse cognitive performance, with greater hearing loss corresponding to greater risk. People with mild hearing loss demonstrated have twice the incidence of dementia and cognitive decline compared to the population without hearing loss. For those with moderate hearing loss or more, the risk of dementia and cognitive weakening is five times as likely. 

Treating Hearing Loss

Most hearing loss can’t be cured or reversed – but, fortunately, it can be effectively treated with hearing aids. Hearing aids help fill in the gaps in your hearing – adjusting and amplifying challenging tones and frequencies so you miss less and can react faster. Using hearing aids has been shown to relieve much of the cognitive stress associated with hearing loss. 

Hearing aids don’t prevent dementia and cognitive decline, but by reducing cognitive stress they improve your mental functioning and can reduce the extra cognitive risks associated with hearing loss. In general, hearing aids significantly improve cognitive performance for people with hearing loss. A recent study even demonstrated that in patients living with both dementia and untreated hearing loss, using hearing aids significantly improved cognitive functioning and responses. While treating hearing loss early is ideal, there are cognitive benefits to treating hearing loss at any stage.

If you’ve recently noticed changes in how you hear, it is time for a hearing exam. Contact us today to connect with healthy hearing.