As we age it is important to consider the reality of hearing loss. For those of us 60 and beyond, one in four will have hearing loss. However, within five years, the risk rises to one in three. You may have a hearing loss and not even know it. Hearing loss can develop gradually over years, affecting how we communicate to others and interact with the world. However, because the decline is subtle it is difficult to self-diagnose.
In addition to affecting how we hear, this irreversible condition can affect many aspects of our health and well-being, on an emotional, and cognitive level. In fact, research shows that there is an increased risk of cognitive decline leading to higher rates of dementia, to more severe our hearing loss becomes. On the bright side, by being proactive and seeking treatment for our hearing loss early, we may be able to reduce this risk.
How Hearing Loss Impacts Cognitive Function
There are several theories and methods in which cognitive function is inhibited the longer hearing loss goes unaddressed. First it is important to understand how hearing loss occurs in relation to the brain. We collect sound with our ears, but hearing occurs in the brain. To reach the brain we rely on tiny hair like cells, known as stereocilia. These cells transform audio waves into electrical impulses which are processed and translated within the auditory cortex of the brain. Here are some ways in which hearing loss impacts our cognitive function:
Cognitive Strain: When sounds can’t reach the brain due to damage of the stereocilia, it causes the brain to work harder to fill in missing sounds in speech. This can lead to cognitive strain, pooling resources from other aspects of brain function and taxing the entire cognitive system.
Social Isolation: We as humans are social creatures who rely on connection to others to feel a sense of being part of something larger than ourselves. Social connection also engages our brain, encouraging us to learn new things, go new places and stay stimulated, quick, and bright. As hearing loss sets in, social interactions become exhausting and frustrating. This may make it more appealing to avoid social interactions. You may find yourself making excuses to opt out of family gatherings, dinner dates and even one on one quality time. As we become socially isolated due to hearing loss it increases stimulation to the brain increasing our risk of irreversible cognitive decline.
Brain Atrophy: When stereocilia become damaged or destroyed it can impact the brain it means that certain sounds no longer can reach the auditory cortex. This loss of sounds causes what is known as sound deprivation. Certain brain cells, devoted to interpreting these sounds are no longer used, causing the cells to wither and recede. This can cause the brain to shrink overtime increasing the risk of loss of brain tissue and dementia.
While there is no cure for hearing loss it can be addressed using hearing aids. These tiny digital devices fit in or around the ear, making it easier for you to hear the sounds you struggle with, based on your latest hearing exam. A recent study led by Dr. Asri Maharani at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, found that hearing aids may mitigate cognitive decline in older adults. The study 2018 study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society was titled “Longitudinal Relationship Between Hearing Aid Use and Cognitive Function in Older Americans.”
The study examined 2,040 adults over the age of 50 in three waves, in which cognitive ability was tracked over a six-year span, with the use of hearing aids for the first time. At the end of this massive 18-year study from 1996-2014 the researchers noted the substantial improvement that hearing aids had in mitigating the effects of cognitive decline in older adults—a demographic at a much higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Remarkably, the study found that the rate of cognitive decline actually slowed down once hearing aids were adopted.
If you are 60 and beyond, or suspect you may have a hearing loss, we recommend staying on top of cognitive health by scheduling a hearing exam with us today!