Hearing Loss and Dementia: What’s the Connection?

Hearing test showing ear of senior man with sound waves simulation technology

Want to suck all the joy out of your next family gathering? Start talking about dementia.

Dementia is not a subject most people are actively looking to discuss, mostly because it’s pretty scary. A degenerative cognitive disease in which you slowly (or, more terrifyingly, quickly) lose your mental faculties, dementia forces you to lose touch with reality, experience mood swings, and have memory problems. It’s not something anyone looks forward to.

This is why many people are looking for a way to prevent–or at least delay–the development of dementia. It turns out untreated hearing loss and dementia have some pretty clear connections and correlations.

That might seem a bit… surprising… to you. After all, what does your brain have to do with your ears (lots, it turns out). So why does hearing loss increase chances of dementia?

What happens when your hearing loss goes untreated

Maybe you’ve noticed your hearing loss already, but you aren’t too worried about it. It’s nothing that turning up the volume on your television won’t solve, right? Or maybe you’ll just turn on the captions when you’re watching your favorite show.

On the other hand, maybe you haven’t noticed your hearing loss yet. Maybe the signs are still easy to dismiss. Either way, hearing loss and cognitive decline have a strong correlation. That may have something to do with what happens when you have untreated hearing loss.

  • Conversation becomes more difficult to understand. As a result, you may begin isolating yourself socially. You can draw away from friends, family, and loved ones. You speak to others less. This kind of social isolation is, well, bad for your brain. (Not to mention your social life.) What’s more, many people who experience hearing loss-related social isolation don’t even realize it’s happening–and they likely won’t attribute their isolation to their hearing.
  • Your brain will start to work much harder. When you have untreated hearing loss, your ears don’t pick up nearly as much audio information (this is kind of obvious, yes, but stick with us). As a result, your brain tries to fill in the gaps. This is incredibly taxing. The current theory is that, when this happens, your brain draws power from your thinking and memory centers. Over time, the thinking is, this leads to dementia (or, at least, helps it along). Your brain working so hard can also cause all manner of other symptoms, such as mental fatigue and tiredness.

So your hearing loss is not quite as harmless as you might have suspected. And it’s not something you can paper over by turning the volume up on your TV.

Hearing loss is one of the major indicators of dementia

Let’s say you have only mild hearing impairment. Like, you can’t hear whispers, but everything else is just fine. Well, turns out you’re still twice as likely to develop dementia as someone who does not have hearing loss.

Which means that even mild hearing loss is a pretty good preliminary indication of a risk of dementia.

Now… What does that mean?

Well, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about risk here. Hearing loss is not a guarantee of dementia–or even an early symptom of dementia. Instead, it just means you have a higher chance of developing dementia or experiencing cognitive decline later in life. But that can actually be good news.

Because it means that successfully managing your hearing loss can help you lower your risk of dementia. So how do you manage your hearing loss? There are several ways:

  • See a hearing specialist to help diagnose your current hearing loss.
  • If your hearing loss is caught early, there are some steps you can take to protect your hearing. For example, you could avoid noisy events (like concerts or sports games) or wear hearing protection when you’re around anything loud (for example, if you work with heavy machinery).
  • Wearing a hearing aid can help minimize the impact of hearing loss. Now, can hearing aids prevent dementia? That’s hard to say, but hearing aids can improve brain function. Here’s why: You’ll be able to participate in more conversations, your brain won’t have to work as hard, and you’ll be a little more socially connected. Research suggests that treating hearing loss can help minimize your risk of developing dementia in the future. (That’s not the same as preventing dementia, but it’s a good thing nonetheless.)

Other ways to lower your dementia risk

Of course, there are other things you can do to lower your risk of dementia, too. This could include:

  • Eating a healthy diet–especially one that helps you keep your blood pressure from getting too high. (Sometimes, medication can help here–some people just have naturally higher blood pressure; those people may need medication sooner rather than later.)
  • Get some exercise.
  • Make sure you get plenty of sleep every night. Some studies link less than four hours of sleep per night to a greater increase of the risk of dementia.
  • Quit smoking. Seriously. It just makes everything worse, including your risk of developing dementia (excess alcohol use can also go on this list).

Of course, scientists are still studying the link between dementia, hearing loss, lifestyle, and more. It’s a complex disease with a matrix of causes. But the lower your risk–the better.

Hearing is its own benefit, too

So, hearing better will help lower your overall risk of developing dementia down the line. But it’s not just your future golden years you’ll be improving–it’s today. Imagine: no more missed conversations, no more muffled misunderstandings, no more quiet and lonely trips to the grocery store.

Missing out on the important things in life stinks. And a little bit of hearing loss management–maybe in the form of a hearing aid–can help significantly.

So make sure you make an appointment with a hearing specialist today. Find a provider in your area to schedule an appointment by searching providers near you.

Want more information?

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