Hearing Loss vs. Cognitive Decline


Research has revealed that adults who have significant hearing loss that has not been augmented with hearing devices may be at higher risk of developing cognitive memory decline and potential dementia later in life. Mild hearing loss doubles the risk dementia and those with severe hearing impairment are five times more likely to develop dementia over their lifetime.

"Hearing Loss and Dementia Linked in Study" Johns Hopkins Medicine Feb. 14, 2011

Often auditory loss is so gradual that it’s only noticeable when one is turning up the TV or music volume to extreme levels and family members become annoyed and alarmed. In time, hearing loss may cause the inability to engage in conversations and laughter as one may not be able to interact with the threads of conversation that stimulate the funny bone and offer quick responses and witty repartee in which we have been accustomed to participate.  Enjoying the nuance of music, listening to nature’s songs and the glee of a child’s wonder makes life more enjoyable. With extreme hearing loss, balance may be disrupted and such dangers of as a car’s approach may not be heard.

After time, if the brain is not stimulated by the sound current it may not be as receptive to technologies available, the brain will begin to atrophy, particularly areas in the frontal lobe and cerebellum/cerebrum where the individual may show signs of cognitive loss earlier than their hearin capable counterparts. As these areas of the brain are responsible for memory, language and balance, often family and friends suspect that their family member may be slipping into dementia when this early cognitive loss that may be remedied by stimulating the brain with sound and healthy life-style habits.

In the early stages of hearing loss, behaviors such as isolation, loneliness and depression may begin to manifest as the brain is having difficulties discerning language and it can be easy for someone withdraw from the world. The person is having to exert much concentration to connect with community. It is easier, at some point, to “check out” and remove oneself from the cacophony of sounds that are difficult to discern. This behavior may alarm family members as they may misunderstand the origin of these personality changes such as lack of participation in family functions, retreating to another room or perception of in appropriate response. Social isolation can affect one’s general health and increase poor lifestyle habits that can lead to other health issues.

Even with a slight hearing loss, one may not hear water dripping, a clock ticking, birds chirping or distant speech. With moderate loss, one can’t hear faint speech or a dog barking. With a profound loss, loud speech and even a lawn mower or a car approaching may not be heard. If you can’t hear your own footsteps, you are at high risk of falls. (Frank Lin, John’s Hopkin’s University)

effects of untreated hearing loss
Click image to enlarge

Severe hearing loss may affect key areas of daily life such as work or social interaction. Often, with the help of hearing aids, behavioral issues self-regulate and an individual may revive and integrate into community with less effort. Hearing aids, while essential, are not perfect. Those of us who experience auditory decline also struggle with concerns such as cognitive load, which requires the use of a huge amount of memory resources that the brain can retain at any moment. The effect on the nervous system can be stressful and often a person will check out for self-preservation. In the Brain emPower program, tools are emphasized to help reduce stressors that may shatter the nervous system due to cognitive load.

Often people believe that wearing a hearing aid will make them feel and look old. What makes someone look or behave old is not being able to engage with life. Hearing aids are so small and technology so improved that they are hardly noticeable. With the number of competent audiologists in the community, find one who will provide a baseline assessment and one will spend time with you to discuss all of your hearing challenges. It is important to be comfortable with one who you can visit frequently and discuss any irregularities in the sound quality you prefer to hear and will know how to adjust your device accordingly. This is not a passive relationship but a co-equal association. You should be afforded your voice to explain your individual challenges with a receptive “ear.” A good audiologist will welcome your visits, help you find the right hearing aid for your unique needs and patiently work with you often to ensure your comfort.

With over 750 million adults worldwide experiencing hearing loss you have a lot of people who understand the challenges.

The next blog post will discuss tips and tricks for ease of communication with those with hearing loss.