Your Brain and Hearing Loss
One thing that is important to understand about hearing loss is that it affects your total health and quality of life. A major impact of hearing loss is the toll it takes on our cognitive functioning.
Untreated hearing loss creates a huge mental strain on our body and mind.
Untreated hearing loss has been correlated with a higher health risk for dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia impairs a person’s ability to function through changes in memory, cognition, mood and behavior. Many people associate dementia with memory problems, including difficulty remembering people, places, words and how to perform everyday activities.
Hearing Loss and Cognition
Understanding the relationship between hearing loss and dementia requires an understanding of how hearing loss relates to our cognition. Hearing is a collaboration between the sensory structures of the ear and the neural processing of the brain. In our ears, soundwaves in the air can be detected through vibration. Tiny sensory cells live in the cochlea of our inner ear called “hair cells”. These hair cells are responsible for transforming the vibration of sound waves into an electrical signal for the brain to receive. The brain then translates the signal into meaning – the sound we hear and our understanding of it.
Our hair cells are quite fragile, and once they are damaged, they have no way to repair themselves. This means that throughout our life the hair cells we lose are cumulative – a damaged hair cell is never restored or replaced. If enough hair cells are lost, our brain is receiving significantly less information about the sounds we hear. This is why people with hearing loss often hear normal speech as muffled or mumbling – the gaps in hair cell coverage create a lack of nuance and detail in sound perception.
When we lose our hearing, our brain doesn’t sit by idly – it races to fill in the blanks and keep pace with everything we hear. Compare this to filling in a crossword puzzle with only half the clues available – it would be far more frustrating, take far longer and we’re much more likely to make mistakes and misinterpret the empty spaces. That is representative of the cognitive stress untreated hearing loss induces.
The Hearing Loss Connection
Untreated hearing loss pulls focus away from other brain functions, which could cause an increased rate of accidental falls in people with unaddressed hearing problems. It also changes how we think. The brain overwrites the neural pathways it used for healthy hearing, and creates new cognitive patterns for understanding sound, adding to the cognitive disorientation hearing loss can provoke.
"Use it or lose it” actually applies to listening because the hearing impaired person’s brain may not be receiving the kind of stimulation it needs to maintain its proper function."
Dementia is based in cognitive deterioration in the brain. Hearing loss, when left unaddressed can place extra stress on cognition, potentially exacerbating dementia and exaggerating its symptoms. By pulling resources from other cognitive concerns, untreated hearing loss paves the way for mental strain, frustration and confusion. While not a direct cause of dementia, untreated hearing loss can play a significant role in how dementia is manifested.
Treatment Is Key
The earlier hearing loss is addressed and treated the easier it is for the brain to maintain its normal hearing patterns and the less stressful hearing loss is on cognition. Treatment with hearing aids and assistive devices significantly lessens the strain on the brain to interpret what it hears. This is why it is important to notice changes in your hearing when they occur and address issues when they arise.
While treating hearing loss early is ideal, treatment can help reduce cognitive stress at any stage. If you’ve been letting hearing issues slide for years, treatment can still help. Most forms of permanent hearing loss can be effectively managed with hearing aids, improving a person’s overall health and quality of life. As we age, an annual hearing exam is recommended to stay on top of your hearing health and catch problems early on.We are also beginning to get data on what hearing treatment can offer to patients with dementia. New studies are finding that introducing hearing aids to people with both dementia and untreated hearing loss markedly improved cognitive performance, functioning and alleviates some symptoms of isolation. While dementia currently has no cure, treating hearing loss offers those who suffer from dementia some degree of cognitive relief and quality of life improvement.