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Does Hearing Loss Affect Cognitive Decline in Adults?

Close up of an older man wearing glasses and an electronic hearing aid.

Hearing loss can be extremely frustrating both for those suffering from it as well as their loved ones. However, it appears to be a common effect of aging, with 40–50% of adults over 65 years having some sort of hearing impairment, with the number rising to 83% for adults above 70. This number makes hearing loss an extremely prevalent health condition, only followed by arthritis and hypertension.

Similarly, it’s well known that as people get older, their cognitive abilities tend to slow down as well. This decline may be mild or severe, depending on the individual. Problems with memory, having difficulty concentrating and experiencing difficulty understanding new information or concepts are common signs of cognitive decline or impairment. While we might not be able to completely stop cognitive decline, research shows that it is possible to slow it down—and one of the ways to do so is by tackling the issue of hearing loss.

Keep reading to learn more about the connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

What Is Cognitive Decline?

Cognition refers to the processes in the brain which allow you to learn, remember things, and analyze information to make judgments. Having cognitive issues can affect a person’s overall health and quality of life. Cognitive decline ranges from mild cognitive decline to full-onset dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease being one of the most common forms.

Cognitive decline happens as you age, but it is important to be aware of your mental functions. Frequently forgetting regular routines, for example, is not a common effect of aging and can instead be a sign pointing to the decline of cognitive faculties.

The Link Between Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline

Hearing loss is a prominent condition on its own, but research shows that hearing loss is actually associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment. Hearing and vision are two of the important senses that become risk factors when it comes to cognitive impairment and decline. Dementia research in recent years has therefore predominantly focused on age-related hearing loss or presbycusis as a major risk factor.

Why Does Hearing Loss Cause Cognitive Decline?

Hearing loss was found to be linked to a higher rate of atrophy in the brain—especially in the regions of the brain involving muscle control and sensory perception like hearing, remembering, decision making, self-control, speech, and emotions. The neurons in people with hearing loss were found to be less active, with less gray matter in the auditory areas of the brain.

There are currently three prominent theories regarding the connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

  • Cognitive overload. Someone struggling with hearing loss will have to concentrate much more to hear and comprehend the sounds around them. Since the brain overworks itself to decipher the sounds, it does not manage to store the information, meaning that you might not have problems with memory as much as cognitive efficiency.
  • Brain shrinkage. Since brains with hearing loss atrophy (or shrink) faster than people with regular hearing, it can result in the auditory areas of the brain becoming inactive. This inactivity results in tissue loss and changes in brain structure, causing the brain to shrink from the lack of stimulation.
  • Social isolation. Untreated hearing loss can very often lead to social isolation, since the person can have trouble conversing and socializing. Isolation leads to a lack of stimuli, which leads to brain shrinkage, but it has also been found to increase feelings of loneliness and depression in older adults, which can result in cognitive decline.

A recent study also shows that inability to hear spoken conversations was associated with a 91% increase in the risk of dementia. A study by Johns Hopkins also shows that seniors with hearing loss have a much faster decline in their cognitive abilities. Even without a concrete cause and effect phenomenon, it is clear that hearing loss is connected to increased cognitive decline and impairment.

What Causes Hearing Loss?

White sound waves entering a woman’s ear against a pink background.

Various factors can contribute to hearing loss, but the most common are exposure to noise for a prolonged period of time, and aging. Hearing loss is often a gradual process, meaning that you may not even notice it in the beginning.

Your ear is made up of three parts: the outer, inner, and middle ear. Sound waves pass through the outer ear to cause vibrations at the eardrum, which are then amplified in the middle ear before reaching the cochlea, or the inner ear. There are thousands of tiny hairs in the inner ear called stereocilia that convert the vibrations into electrical signals that travel to the brain to turn them into sound.

Hearing loss can be caused by:

  1. Inner ear damage. Damage to the tiny hairs in your inner ear due to exposure to loud noise or aging is one of the most common causes of hearing loss.
  2. Buildup of earwax. A gradual buildup of earwax can lead to your ear canal being blocked, which prevents sound waves from passing through.
  3. Infection or growths. Bone growths, tumors, or ear infections in the middle and outer ear can result in hearing loss.
  4. Ruptured eardrum. Ruptured eardrums are usually caused by extremely loud blasts of noise, sudden changes in pressure, poking your eardrum, or infection.

Similarities Between Symptoms of Hearing Loss and Cognitive Impairment

If you find that you’re having trouble understanding what people are saying, don’t be quick to assume that you may be developing dementia or some other form of cognitive impairment. Many hearing loss symptoms can mimic those of cognitive decline such as difficulty hearing, feeling that you are hearing but not understanding, avoiding social interactions, being dependent on others to help you hear, tinnitus, and more.

Can Hearing Loss Cause Other Health Conditions?

Hearing loss isn’t only connected to cognitive decline; it is also associated with a variety of other conditions, from depression to diabetes. It has also been linked to cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, and an increased risk of falls.

Can Hearing Aids Lower Your Risk of Dementia?

While hearing aids cannot reverse or completely stop the development of dementia or other cognitive impairments, research shows that hearing aids can delay the onset of dementia. They also reduce the risk of comorbidities associated with cognitive decline, like falls, social isolation, and anxiety, and depression. By allowing you to maintain your quality of life by helping you stay independent and mentally stimulated, hearing aids can help you minimize the risk of developing dementia.

Even for people who already have some form of cognitive impairment, hearing loss shouldn’t be ignored since it can exacerbate their symptoms.

It can be easy to feel isolated and out of place when you suffer from hearing loss. If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms related to hearing loss or cognitive decline, reach out to Wichita Falls Hearing in Wichita Falls, Texas. We are an independent, and locally-owned and operated facility offering comprehensive hearing solutions to serve our community the best we can.

Our hearing care specialists will work with you to truly understand your hearing goals, and will provide you with the leading hearing instrument technology to help you achieve them. We offer more than 500 models of hearing aids, so book an appointment with us today!

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