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Can You Hear Me? How Hearing Loss Affects Cognition

Nearly 27 million Americans aged 50 and older have hearing loss. One of the consequences is that they miss out on what people are saying in face-to-face conversations or on the phone. And there are also more serious side effects. People with hearing loss are more likely to develop problems thinking and remembering than adults whose hearing is normal.

Your brain must work harder to process sound if you do not hear well. That may take away energy that it could use for other important cognitive functions.  Adults with hearing loss develop a significant impairment in their cognitive abilities 3.2 years sooner than those with normal hearing.

Studies about Hearing Loss and Dementia

Several studies point to a significant correlation between hearing loss and loss of cognitive functions. 

In a study that tracked 639 adults for nearly 12 years, Johns Hopkins Professor Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D. and his colleagues found that mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk. Moderate hearing loss tripled risk, and people with a severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia. Also, if your ears can no longer pick up on as many sounds, your hearing nerves will send fewer signals to your brain. As a result, the brain declines.

“Brain scans show us that hearing loss may contribute to a faster rate of atrophy in the brain,” Lin says. “Hearing loss also contributes to social isolation. You may not want to be with people as much, and when you are you may not engage in conversation as much. These factors may contribute to dementia.”

A study of 100 people with Alzheimer’s disease conducted at the University of Washington’s Department of Medicine found that 83% had hearing loss. After being fitted and using hearing aids, 33% were classified with less severe dementia.

This does not mean that people with hearing loss (about two-thirds of adults over 70) are guaranteed to have dementia — simply that the odds are higher. 

Research shows it is important to be proactive in addressing hearing decline to stave off cognitive decline and social isolation. Conversing with others helps your brain stay active and keeps you involved with life. If your hearing or that of a family member has diminished, make an appointment with an audiologist for a quick and painless hearing screening.

Photo by Mark Paton on Unsplash

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