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Hearing Loss and Dementia

Consequences of Untreated Hearing Loss

Many people assume that if someone with hearing loss does not seek treatment there is only one consequence (that the person’s partial or total inability to hear will persist without any other effects).

The truth is, there are many consequences of untreated hearing loss. When left unaddressed, hearing loss can have a major impact on the brain, lead to social disengagement, and cause serious health issues. In fact, there’s even a strong link between hearing loss and dementia.

Hearing loss changes the structure of the brain

If left untreated, hearing loss can change the structure of the brain over time (source). A study from Johns Hopkins Medicine found that people with hearing loss experienced accelerated rates of brain atrophy (source). The research revealed that some regions of the brain, particularly the regions devoted to processing sound and speech, shrunk significantly during the studied period of time. Much like a muscle will shrink and weaken if left unused, the region of the brain responsible for sound and speech processing will atrophy if hearing loss is not addressed.

According to a 25-year study, people with hearing loss who wear hearing aids and stay socially active experience cognitive decline at the same rate as people without hearing loss (source).

Hearing loss leads to higher cognitive load

A study conducted at the University of Colorado’s Department of Speech Language and Hearing Science looked at neuroplasticity and how the brain adapts to hearing loss (source).

The study found that hearing loss impairs the quality of the signals perceived by the brain for processing. When a person has hearing loss, parts of the brain dedicated to other senses (like vision and touch) take over the area of the brain that typically processes hearing. Known as cross-modal cortical reorganization, this rewiring process can lead to cognitive decline because it increases the brain’s cognitive load.

The reorganization negatively impacts the person’s ability to understand speech and weakens the brain. Areas of the brain devoted to higher-level thinking step in, attempting to correct the deficiency. Preoccupied with assisting the brain with its hearing function, they abandon their typical responsibilities, which can cause serious cognitive issues. A significant correlation exists between hearing loss and dementia (source) and this can happen even in the early stages of hearing loss.

It can change behavior and lead to social disengagement

The consequences of untreated hearing loss are not only physical. Hearing loss may also affect your social life and emotional health. 

As your ability to hear fades away, you might find yourself straining to hear conversations. Not only is this challenging, frustrating, and stressful, you might misunderstand important information.

People with hearing loss tend to withdraw from social activities, and this disengagement can cause depression and anxiety.

On average, people with hearing loss choose to wait 7-10 years before seeking help (source). Not only do these people experience years of inadequate hearing due to procrastination, but they may also encounter difficulty communicating, a sense of isolation, and increased health risks. 

On the other hand, people who use hearing aids often find that their mood improves and their social interaction increases due to their restored ability to communicate with others (source).

Hearing loss can lead to other health issues

Because hearing loss is associated with an increased rate of cognitive decline, it should come as no surprise that research has revealed that people with hearing loss are more likely to develop dementia (source). In addition to the link between hearing loss and dementia, an often cited survey commissioned by the National Council on Aging found that adults with untreated hearing loss and their significant others experienced significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other psychosocial disorders (source). If someone with hearing loss fails to seek medical care, they may develop one of the following health issues:

  • Dementia
  • Fatigue
  • Balance issues
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Tinnitus
  • Reduced ability to process and recognize speech

Other consequences of untreated hearing loss include strained relationships and decreased job performance, which can lower a person’s earning potential and career prospects. It can also threaten a person’s ability to live independently.

The Correlation Between Hearing Loss and Dementia

Midlife hearing loss is the single greatest risk factor for dementia (source). Researchers can’t explain exactly why people who suffer from hearing loss are so prone to cognitive decline, but they have a few theories.

First, as we mentioned above, hearing loss often leads to social isolation, which is another risk factor for dementia. When people avoid cognitively stimulating environments due to their hearing loss, dementia may result. Second, when a person suffers from hearing loss, their brain must work harder to decode sounds, so they may have a difficult time remembering what they heard. Finally, as we mentioned above, hearing loss may produce long-term changes within the brain.

Although the link between hearing loss and dementia is concerning, it’s not hopeless. The one thing that you can do to lower your risk of developing dementia is to address hearing loss without delay. Early intervention is crucial to protecting cognitive function. And even if you don’t believe you suffer from hearing loss, if you’re over the age of 50, it is important that you schedule an annual screening to assess your hearing health.

The Good News!

Remember, the good news is that treating any hearing loss early may help reverse or slow down cognitive decline. At a minimum, your quality of life will improve. And if wearing modern hearing devices prevents or delays dementia, all the better!