As we get older, it’s natural that we begin to experience some level of cognitive decline. The ageing process can cause the connections between cells in the brain to become damaged, and some cells can be lost.
For some, the issues that this leads to can be relatively mild and includes age-related forgetfulness and short-term memory loss every once in a while, commonly known as our ‘senior moments’. However, the impact of ageing can be far greater for others and may lead to more serious problems, such as dementia.
Whilst there is no concrete way to prevent the decline in our cognitive abilities or the onset of dementia, there are ways in which we can slow the process down by having a better understanding of the link between our cognitive functions and hearing loss.
The link between hearing loss and dementia
Studies have shown that dementia and hearing loss often occur together and that those with mild hearing loss are twice as likely to develop dementia. For those with severe hearing loss, the risk of developing dementia is five times greater (Lin et al 2011).
Generally, the evidence suggests that dementia is more common among people with untreated hearing loss, and those people tend to experience cognitive decline earlier than those with normal hearing.
It’s clearly understood that both conditions have an impact on each other, but there is no solid reason for this link. However, researchers have shared several theories on why hearing loss may speed up and worsen our cognitive decline. Some of these theories include:
When brain cells lack stimulation, they can shrink. For those with hearing loss, this can apply to the parts of the brain that struggle to receive and process sounds, and can therefore cause the cells to shrink over time.
When hearing loss is left untreated, this can put the brain under a great deal of strain as it continuously struggles to process sounds. This can lead to the brain becoming overworked and not operating efficiently.
Hearing loss can cause social isolation, as the sufferer can become uncomfortable in situations where they struggle to socialise and participate in conversations. Spending too much time in isolation can again lead to the brain not receiving enough stimulation.
The most recent studies into how the two conditions are linked conclude that hearing loss may promote an increase in cognitive decline because it leads to a degeneration of the auditory centres in the brain, due to a lack of auditory input. When this happens, the brain struggles to compensate and begins to use up more resources to process auditory information.
These increased demands on the brain can lead to fewer resources available for other processes such as memory and learning.
Can hearing aids prevent dementia?
Now we know that untreated hearing loss is strongly correlated with cognitive decline, can we use hearing aids to prevent dementia?
In a 25-year long scientific French study (Amieva et al 2015) it was reported that whilst hearing loss can accelerate cognitive decline, the implementation of hearing aids can almost eliminate this decline.
The study stated: “By at least partially restoring communication abilities, hearing aids may help improve mood, increase social interactions and enable participation in cognitively stimulating abilities and consequently could slow cognitive decline.”
The idea behind this is that hearing aids can alleviate some of the impacts that hearing loss has on the brain, by making it easier to hear and interpret sounds and conversations. By managing hearing loss, this reduces the strain placed on the auditory system and allows the brain to function properly for the processes needed in memory and learning.
Whilst hearing aids shouldn’t be thought of as a way to reverse dementia, the evidence is clear in that proper use of aids to manage hearing loss can help to lower the risk factors involved.
Managing hearing loss and cognitive decline
Hearing loss can have a profound impact on a person’s quality of life. Alongside the acceleration of cognitive decline and increased risk of dementia, research has associated it with many other conditions including depression, anxiety, heart disease, and kidney disease.
For anyone suffering from dementia, hearing loss should never be ignored. It’s not uncommon for patients to attribute some of their hearing loss symptoms to dementia – and this is why sometimes it may go undiagnosed. This confusion can lead to hearing loss never being treated, but the worsening of this condition over time can bring on or exacerbate the symptoms of dementia.
The mental and social consequences for those suffering from both hearing loss and dementia can have a huge impact on their life, which is why it’s encouraged to implement the use of hearing aids.
Not only do hearing aids improve the quality of the wearers’ hearing, but the impacts of this can have knock-on effects in all other aspects of their life. They have been proven to improve social interactions and eliminate the feeling of needing to isolate themselves, whilst also offering more opportunities for the brain to engage in stimulating activities.
If you notice that yourself or a loved one may be struggling with the onset of hearing loss or an increase in cognitive decline, it’s important to seek the help of a professional as soon as possible.
Taking care of your ear health extends far beyond being able to engage in conversations. Promptly treating hearing loss is the best solution to slowing down the progression of cognitive decline, and we’re here to help.
The Hearing Specialist is a professional, independent audiologist based in South London. Through our in-depth hearing tests, we aim to provide a practical solution to your problems, no matter the severity of your hearing loss.
We offer a free 7-day hearing aid trial so you can test the device out for yourself before you commit to it. Our mission is to improve the hearing health of all of our patients, and your comfort is our top priority. Click here to book an appointment online or get in touch with us.