Hearing Loss & Dementia

Did you know that hearing happens in the brain? While our ears play a very important role in the auditory process, the brain is central to how we hear. In the past decades, researchers have found convincing information linking the potential risk for developing dementia with untreated hearing loss. Here, we take a look at the process of hearing and how untreated hearing loss affects your cognitive ability, possibly increasing the risk for dementia.

Prevalence of Hearing Loss

Occupational hearing loss is a common injury as reported by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

As an invisible condition, hearing loss is under-treated and often goes undiagnosed. The Hearing Loss Association of America reports that people wait an average of seven years before getting treatment.

Of the American workforce experiences some degree of hearing loss, as well as the same number of veterans returning from combat zones.
One in Three
people over age 65, 50% of people over age 75, and 80% of people over age 85 experience some degree of hearing loss.
Senior man with hearing loss
the brain and cognition

Understanding the Auditory Process

Believe it or not, hearing is the fastest sense that you have. Sight comes second, because it takes longer for information from your eyes to get to your brain. Meanwhile, it only takes your brain 0.05 seconds to recognize a sound wave, once it reaches your ear.

Your outer ear is responsible for conducting sound. This means the outer ear picks up sound in your environment. Sound waves travel through to the middle ear, where they are amplified and turned into vibrations by the ear drum. These vibrations travel to the inner ear, where they are translated into neural signals by your inner ear hair cells. These neural signals then travel to the brain, where they are processed as sounds.

There are a number of different causes for hearing loss. One of the most common causes is sensorineural hearing loss, caused by the loss of inner ear hair cells. Exposure to loud noises or certain classes of medication can damage these inner ear hair cells; once they are gone, they do not regenerate. As a result, sensorineural hearing loss affects the way our brains process sound.

A 2015 study from the University of Colorado, conducted by Anu Sharma of the Department of Speech Language and Hearing Science, looked at the brain’s neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is “the ability of the brain to forge new connections, to determine the ways it adapts to hearing loss, as well as the consequences of those changes.” Sharma’s study first recorded the way brain waves responded to sound stimulus amongst adults and children who experienced hearing loss or deafness.

They found that “the areas of the brain responsible for processing vision or touch can recruit, or take over, areas in which hearing is normally processed, but which receive little or no stimulation in deafness” and that “cross-modal cortical organization” meant that the brain was siphoning energy to overcompensate for hearing loss. According to Sharma, “These compensatory changes increase the overall load on the brains of aging adults, which may be a factor in explaining recent reports in the literature that show age-related hearing loss is significantly correlated with dementia.”

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore have led the charge on studies around hearing loss and the risk for dementia. In one notable study, Dr. Frank Lin and his team tracked 2,000 older adults (average age 77) over the course of six years. They found that 24% of test subjects (who experienced untreated hearing loss) were more likely to experience diminished cognitive decline, compared to those with normal hearing.

In another study from 2011, Dr. Lin and his team tracked 639 test subjects over the course of 12-18 years. At the beginning of the study, all test subjects had normal, healthy cognitive ability. Over the course of the study, test subjects had annual hearing exams. At the end of the study, analysis of data revealed that “study participants with hearing loss at the beginning of the study were significantly more likely to develop dementia by the end. Compared with volunteers with normal hearing, those with mild, moderate, or severe hearing loss had twofold, threefold, and fivefold, respectively, the risk of developing dementia over time.”

In both studies, Dr. Lin and his team reached a common conclusion: untreated hearing loss places a heavy cognitive strain on the brain, which detracts energy from other processes (such as memory, speech, etc.) and could potentially increase the risk for dementia.

It’s not all bad news. A 2011 Japanese study found that participants who experienced hearing loss – who were prescribed hearing aids early on in the study – had higher cognitive abilities compared to participants with untreated hearing loss.

Hearing loss is a common and highly treatable medical condition. There is no reason to live with hearing loss. Contact us at Professional Hearing Services today to schedule a consultation.

Studies Linking Hearing Loss & Dementia

Signs of Hearing Loss

Below are a series of questions – if you answer “yes” to three or more, you may be experiencing a hearing loss.

  • Do you avoid meeting new people because you have difficulty hearing them?

  • Is it frustrating trying to talk to some people because you have difficulty hearing them?

  • Do you have difficulty understanding co-workers, customers or clients?

  • Are you starting to feel isolated or are ducking out of social situations because you have problems hearing?

  • Do you think “I can hear that, but I don’t understand it?”

  • Do you have trouble understanding dialogue at the movies, when you are trying to watch an internet video or in a theater?

  • Are you arguing at home with family members about loud volumes on the radio or television?

  • Do you have problems hearing on the phone?

  • Are you asking people to repeat themselves?

  • Can you hear if someone is talking from another room or behind you?

  • Do you have trouble hearing conversations when you are at a restaurant with or in the car?

If you have answered “yes” to three or more of the above questions, take the first step toward better hearing health and schedule a hearing evaluation with us at Professional Hearing Services today.

Benefits of Treating Hearing Loss

Treating hearing loss is as simple as taking a hearing test. A hearing evaluation measures your hearing loss in degrees – mild, moderate, severe and profound – as well as configuration (one ear or both). Once a hearing loss is diagnosed, Professional Hearing Services staff will review your treatment options with you. Hearing aids are the most common treatment for hearing loss. Hearing aids are designed to assist you in the listening process.

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