Untreated hearing loss & risk of cognitive decline

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are conditions everyone hopes to avoid as they age and hearing plays an important role in maintaining mental sharpness. Although the research is still inconclusive on exactly how untreated hearing loss can increase one’s risk of developing Dementia, they do shed some light on three possible links.

Social Isolation

I have a lot of patients that tell me they have stopped going out to restaurants or social gatherings because it’s just too difficult to hear. Others, while at these functions sit back or withdraw from the conversation rather than being an active participant because they fear they may misunderstand, or they don’t want to have to interrupt to ask for repetition. Both common scenarios lead to social isolation and loneliness, which studies have shown increases the risk for Alzheimer’s Disease.

Cognitive Load

Your brain has a certain amount of energy allotted for typical daily tasks. As hearing loss worsens, it becomes more difficult to hear and understand, and your brain has to work harder to listen and comprehend what others are saying.  This steals energy away from the energy needed for memory and thinking. Scientists refer to this as the “cognitive load theory.”

Brain Shrinkage

As we age, our brain shrinks. With untreated hearing loss, the brain is not receiving the auditory stimulation it needs and atrophies or weakens. Researchers at Johns Hopkins found that people with hearing loss lost more brain tissue when compared to others with normal hearing.

Can hearing aids help with Alzheimer’s and Dementia?

 Absolutely! — A 2015 study compared hearing impaired patients who wore hearing aids with hearing impaired patients who did not over a 25 year period. They found that the patients who did not wear hearing aids showed evidence of accelerated cognitive decline. Patients who wore their hearing aids had no more cognitive decline compared to those with normal hearing of a similar age!

Similarly, results from a 2017 study from The Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention and Care concluded that one of the nine things you can do to help prevent dementia is to manage or treat your hearing loss earlier in life. They also concluded hearing loss as the number one risk factor patients have the power to change to reduce the chance or significantly delay the onset of dementia.