Hearing Loss & Cognitive Decline: What’s the Connection?

by | Aug 30, 2023 | Hearing Loss

Have you heard of “comorbidities?” 

Comorbidities are the presence of two or more diseases or conditions in a person at the same time. While comorbidities may seem independent from each other at first, some health conditions are worsened by other health conditions, so identifying the connection between different diseases is a growing area of interest for scientists and medical professionals. 

One of the lesser known (but critically important!) comorbidities is the connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline, specifically dementia. This is a great example of two conditions that seem independent but are actually connected. Recent scientific evidence shows a larger connection between untreated hearing loss and dementia than previously known.

How are hearing loss and dementia connected?

While there have been shorter and smaller studies that aimed to determine the connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline, the Aging and Cognitive Health Evaluation in Elders, or ACHIEVE, study released in 2023 has made the connection undeniable. 

One of the most interesting findings from the study was that hearing intervention slowed down loss of thinking and memory abilities by 48% over 3 years. In other words, treating hearing loss made a significant difference in cognitive function for older adults who participated in the study. 

But how is that possible? It comes down to how hearing loss affects your brain over time. 

Hearing loss affects cognition both directly and indirectly

Directly, hearing loss requires your brain to work harder, which takes up more mental capacity than normal. While a good portion of our ability to hear happens in our ears, the processing of auditory information happens in the brain, and a strong hearing ability makes it much easier for the brain to do this important task. 

But, when hearing loss is present, your brain has to work significantly harder to process auditory signals received by your ears, leaving less mental capacity for cognition and other key functions. 

Indirectly, not being able to hear as well as they used to can lead people to isolate themselves from their loved ones or other interactions with humans. Going to social functions can suddenly feel daunting, and it can be embarrassing not being able to follow conversations or having to ask everyone to repeat themselves. So, for many older adults, it’s just easier to cut back on social interactions, which may lead to cognitive decline over time.

Social isolation has been linked to dementia in a few different studies but most recently in two studies leveraging data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study done by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Researchers in one study found that dementia risk was 27% higher among socially isolated older adults compared to those who had more social interaction. 

While causation was not necessarily established, there’s definitely a strong correlation between social isolation and dementia, and hearing loss intervention is a great indirect way to lessen these risks. 

Keep your memory healthy by keeping your hearing healthy

While hearing loss is not always preventable, like in the cases of hereditary hearing loss, it is very treatable, and the ACHIEVE study has shown that treating hearing loss helps more than just hearing health. It can make a significant difference in your cognitive abilities over time, as well. 

There are many ways you can lessen your risk of developing dementia through hearing loss intervention, including:

  • Protecting your hearing: While some hearing loss develops gradually with age alone, prolonged or sudden exposure to loud noises can speed up the development of hearing loss. So, it’s very important to wear hearing protection in loud environments, like at music concerts, while watching fireworks shows, or while hunting. 
  • Getting annual hearing tests: It’s never too early to start regularly checking your hearing, but it becomes essential after age 50. Hearing loss often develops gradually, making it hard to know for sure when you have it. But, a hearing test can detect early signs of hearing loss and allow you to intervene, lessening the risk of developing a cognitive disorder like dementia.
  • Understanding the symptoms and risk factors of hearing loss: In addition to regular hearing tests, it’s important to understand the early symptoms of hearing loss so that you can detect it earlier than others normally would. Things like needing to turn up the television volume higher than normal, not following conversations as easily, and needing people to repeat themselves are some of the most common signs that may indicate hearing loss. 
  • Considering hearing aids: Not all hearing loss requires treatment with hearing aids, but hearing aids are a great option for those with even milder cases of hearing loss and allow you to stay socially connected, another key way to combat cognitive decline.

We recommend that you start getting regular hearing tests starting at age 50 to lessen the risk of cognitive decline and other health issues resulting from hearing loss. Contact Colorado Ear Care to schedule a hearing test today!

Talk with one of our friendly hearing and balance professionals today.