Latest posts by Leanne E. Polhill, LHAS, BC-HIS, BA (see all)
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Cognitive decline has long been an early indicator of dementia, the sixth leading cause of mortality in this country. So it makes sense that we should be vigilant of anything that might compromise our brain functions. That’s why we should start looking at hearing loss. Even adults with a little hearing loss are at a higher risk of dementia, and the numbers get worse the more severe the hearing loss gets – those with severe hearing loss have five times the risk of their hearing peers.
As our hearing declines, the higher frequencies are usually the first to go. This makes it much harder to understand others in noisy environments. Here are three ways this hearing loss can lead to cognitive decline.
1. Social isolation
Social isolation and hearing loss have a strong association. Hearing loss makes people less likely to want to meet up with friends, family and co-workers. The individual isolates themselves, and they find they have fewer people to call.
Losing those strong and loose ties means there are fewer people to engage the brain with in conversations, leading to an overall reduction in the use of several parts of the brain we use for conversation. This results in reduced cognitive stimulation.
2. Cognitive overload
In order to try to understand conversations, the person with hearing loss works their brain overtime to fill in the gaps. This is what we call “cognitive load.” As the brain works hard to fill in the blanks, it leaves less energy to store and process what the person has already heard into their short-term memory.
The work of trying to keep up with conversations adds more stress and anxiety on the listener. This can trigger a ‘flight or flight’ shot of adrenaline that eventually leaves the individual feeling physically and mentally drained at the day. It also makes people less reliable in their short-term memory, which is itself an early indicator of dementia.
3. Brain atrophy
The most convincing case for hearing loss leading to cognitive decline might be the idea that hearing loss results in a faster rate of brain atrophy in the hearing portion of the brain.
A recent study at Johns Hopkins University found that, compared with those with normal hearing, those with hearing loss had their brain tissue shrink at a faster rate than is normally the case as we age. Areas where the shrinkage occurred most were in areas responsible for sound and speech, cognitive processes, and memory recall.
According to study author Frank Lin, hearing loss means we use these parts of the brain less, which leads to less stimulation and eventually the loss of unused brain tissue:
“(Hearing loss leads to) accelerated atrophy in certain areas that are chronically sort of under stimulated. And, in turn, that increased atrophy may increase the risk for dementia over time.”
How Hearing Aids Can Help
Although the evidence is mounting that hearing loss is strongly linked with cognitive decline, there is help at hand. Many recent studies have pointed to the connection between hearing aid use and a reduction in cognitive decline. A recent study by British researchers at Manchester University in England found that wearing hearing aids could slow the degeneration by up to 75%.
Hearing aids help prevent cognitive decline in several ways. Individuals wearing them can hear much better in noisy environments which makes them less likely to experience cognitive load. Those with improved hearing can reconnect to family and friends, and go out more. This leads to less social isolation, and the body and brain are kept active as they are being exposed to new stimuli while outdoors. This new stimuli ‘exercises’ parts of the brain and makes it less likely that they will degenerate from a lack of use.
Visit Us at Encore Hearing
Treating your hearing is one way you can keep your brain sharp for years to come and could reduce your risk of dementia. Talk to us about the benefits of treating your hearing loss and which treatment option would be best for you. Schedule a consultation with us today!