Hearing Loss and Dementia – Are They Connected?

Hearing loss affects millions of Americans, and for many, just an expected part of aging. However, it isn’t that simple, nor should hearing loss be considered inconsequential. Untreated hearing loss has significant negative consequences – something no one wants to be a natural part of the aging process – dementia. So, how are hearing loss and dementia connected, and more importantly, what can you do to stop it?

How Hearing Loss Leads to Dementia

A study by John Hopkins and National Institute on Aging researchers suggests that seniors with hearing loss are significantly more likely to develop dementia than those who retain their hearing. How hearing loss and dementia are connected is three-part: 

Hearing Loss Increased Your Cognitive Load

Hearing loss typically begins in the higher frequencies first. So, as it progresses, you begin to hear less of the softer, high-pitched sounds. When it comes to speech, you begin to miss consonants that make speech clear. 

The graph below shows where speech sounds typically lie, and the blue and red lines represent a mild high-frequency hearing loss. Anything above those lines, you cannot hear unless someone begins to shout at you. 

speech banana audiogram

You begin to mi__ __e_e _ound_ in what o_er_ are _aying.

This is where cognitive load comes in, or the increased effort it takes to process information. Hearing loss makes it a lot harder to understand:

You begin to miss these sounds in what others are saying.

That extra effort takes away your ability to put to memory what your hearing. Your brain has a limited amount of resources, and when it’s tied up translating and comprehending, it doesn’t remember so well as well as the fact that spending a whole day translating is exhausting and frustrating.

Correcting for hearing loss with amplification makes it easier for a person to listen to allocate more resources to do other cognitively demanding tasks, improving brain resilience

Hearing Loss and Reduced Brain Matter

Our brains are constantly changing throughout our entire lives; it’s how we’re able to learn. It’s also how we forget what we once knew. When we no longer use a portion of our brains dedicated to a particular skill, it reallocates it to help improve a different, current skill.

This can happen with the speech sounds we’ve heard all our lives. If you no longer hear certain speech sounds due to hearing loss, your brain will adapt, negatively affecting that region – and the longer your brain goes without hearing these sounds, the less clear speech will sound permanently.

Hearing Loss and Social Isolation

Hearing loss also leads to social isolation. If it is hard to understand those around you, you will begin to engage with them less, drawing inward more and more. Social isolation has been a longstanding risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia.

What Do We Do About Hearing Loss and Dementia?

Ok, you get it; hearing loss and dementia are connected. But do you know how connected? 

Research has shown that anyone with a hearing loss, no matter the severity, is significantly more likely to develop dementia than those with normal hearing.  

  • Mild hearing loss increases the risk was two-fold. 
  • Moderate hearing loss increases the risk was threefold.
  • Severe hearing loss increases the risk was fivefold. 

According to Dr. Doraiswamy, a professor of psychiatry and medicine at Duke University School, “every doctor knows that hearing loss can result in cognitive problems, but they still don’t focus on it as a priority when they evaluate someone with suspected dementia — which is a big missed opportunity. The benefits of correcting hearing loss on cognition are twice as large as the benefits from any cognitive-enhancing drugs now on the market. It should be the first thing we focus on.”

Focusing on treating hearing loss more aggressively can successfully reduce cognitive decline and dementia – properly fit hearing aids showed double the improvement in cognition compared to the leading FDA drugs for treating Alzheimer’s. This finding is also applicable to the other senses, raising the need to correct for vision. 

While there aren’t hearing aids specifically designed to treat cognitive decline, any properly fit device will prove beneficial. If you are personally concerned or the caretaker of someone struggling with cognition, reach out to a hearing care professional. They will be able to discuss the latest product and help you find a solution that addresses everyone’s needs. 

If you or a loved one are noticing trouble hearing, don’t delay receiving the treatment to stay engaged and sharp. Wholistic Hearing Care can bring the clinic to you with our Chicago-based mobile audiology clinic. Give Dr. Stephanie Gutzmer a call at (630) 474-5008 to get you towards better hearing today.

We proudly provide on-site hearing services for DuPage, Kane, Kendall, and Will counties in Illinois and offer telehealth appointments at your convenience for many of our services.