Hearing loss and dementia are two natural consequences of ageing. Did you know that there is a link between the two?
You may think that hearing loss does not affect your health, except for your hearing. But untreated hearing loss may affect your health more than you think. In recent years, researchers around the world have discovered that there are scientific reasons to address hearing loss earlier. According to a study conducted by Dr Frank R. Lin, seniors with hearing loss are significantly more likely to develop dementia over time than those who retain their hearing.
Hearing loss rarely occurs suddenly. Most people develop hearing problems gradually over a period of time – but they initially go unnoticed. The affected person is becoming more accustomed to the onset of hearing loss. Because hearing deficits are compensated by the brain for a long time, there are almost no consequences in everyday life during the first phase.
At some point, hearing problems are not easily treated because the brain has become accustomed to the hearing loss. It is not strange that friends and family detect the hearing problem before the person who has hearing loss acknowledges they have a problem saying: ‘I can hear well!’ Waiting too long can lead to serious consequences. Some researchers have found that after approximately seven years our brain simply forgets to hear certain sounds. When these sounds are then audible again with the aid of a hearing aid, they can no longer be interpreted correctly and are often considered too loud and uncomfortable – even if it is as harmless as the sound of tree leaves or birds chirping.
According to relevant studies, older adults with hearing loss are more likely to develop diseases such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, increasing the risk the more severe the hearing loss. For example, people with mild hearing loss are twice as likely to develop dementia. The risk triples in cases of moderate hearing loss and quintuples when the loss is severe. Specifically, the risk of dementia grows for those whose hearing loss exceeds 25 decibels. For study participants over 60, 36% of the risk of dementia was associated with hearing loss.
Does this mean that hearing loss is a direct cause of dementia? Let’s not rush to conclusions. Both of these pathological conditions definitely have a close relationship. However, the nature of this relationship still needs to be studied. At this stage, scientists put forward these main factors, which are a common platform for impaired memory and hearing loss:
|Structure of the brain.Hearing loss can affect the structure of your brain in ways that contribute to cognitive problems. Brain imaging studies have shown that older adults with hearing loss have less grey matter in the part of the brain that receives and processes sounds from the ears. This is because some brain cell structures may shrink if they do not receive enough stimulation.|
|Social isolation.People who suffer from hearing loss tend to lock themselves in, limiting social contacts to a minimum. Isolation from society is also one of the risk factors for dementia, moreover, regardless of whether a person’s hearing is normal or not. In other words, if it is difficult to hear what people are saying and to follow conversations, you may prefer to stay at home rather than go out and socialize. But when you isolate yourself from your friends, family, and active life, you become less social and less engaged. When your brain does not get enough stimuli during the day, you increase your risk of developing dementia or even perhaps depression.|
|Excessive load on the brain.Hearing loss forces your brain to work at higher speeds, using all its resources to recognize and process sound stimuli to the detriment of all its other functions. This imbalance negatively affects the cognitive functions of the brain, including thinking and memory. You can also become fatigued and frustrated with simple tasks.|
It is possible that hearing loss and dementia have a common cause underlying their development.
The relationship between hearing loss and dementia is explained by the fact that hearing loss causes an effort to understand sounds, which can overload the brain and affect cognitive functions, making it more vulnerable to dementia. It is well known that untreated hearing loss can lead to brain atrophy, which particularly affects the brain regions responsible for sound and speech processing as a result of the lack of stimulation of the auditory cortex. The same regions also play an important role in memory and sensory integration and are involved in Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to causing a depletion of mental abilities, hearing loss also leads to social isolation.
The good news is that hearing loss can be prevented with current hearing aid technology, cochlear implants and other rehabilitation interventions focused on hearing optimization, which should be seen as yet another alternative in the prevention and treatment of dementia. It is well known that knowledge acquisition creates new connections between neurons and increases intellectual reserve. Thus, the continued use of brain capacities through hearing aids and intellectual stimuli, as well as physical exercise and proper diet, no matter the environment, whether familiar or in a nursing home, can increase cognitive reserve and help delay the onset of dementia.
Wearing hearing aids is one of the most common solutions for people with hearing loss. Just as glasses do not restore vision, hearing aids do not restore hearing. However, hearing aids give patients the ability to hear sounds clearly and communicate perfectly with friends and family. Today’s hearing aids are developed with state-of-the-art technology and function as a kind of “microcomputer”. Hearing aids offer features like Bluetooth connections with mobile and television. Some models also have special features that improve speech understanding in noisy environments through finer microphone adjustments and environment management.
If we put aside all these scientific reasonings, what can an ordinary person (with hearing loss) do in order to prevent dementia? There are at least four effective measures that you can commence on your own:
Chronic stress occurs against the background of a consistently high concentration in the blood of the steroid hormone cortisol, which, in turn, can cause memory impairment. A prolonged increase in cortisol is one of the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease: people living under constant stress are 2-3 times more likely to suffer from this serious illness. Thus, finding a reasonable balance between daily stress exposure and physical and psychological stress is an effective strategy for preventing Alzheimer’s disease, and therefore cognitive impairment, including memory loss.
Hearing problems greatly complicate communication with family and friends, making a significant contribution to daily stress levels. Hearing aids are in this case a kind of lightning rod, discharging the situation and allowing to reduce the increasing communicative voltage. Wearing hearing aids, it goes without saying that in such conditions you will be more likely to participate in family events, friendly parties, etc., maintaining the previous intensity of communication.
As practice shows, the acquisition of a hearing aid can play a trick on a person. It’s as if you had purchased a subscription to a fitness centre but would have started to visit McDonald’s even more often (they say, I’ll burn extra calories anyway – I’m an athlete now). Do not think that the hearing aid will do all the work for you: you will need to train yourself. There are several auditory strategies that will facilitate your communication and strengthen the positive results achieved with the aid of a hearing device, improving your Random Access Memory (RAM).
Random Access Memory is a memory that preserves a generalized image of perceived information for a short period of time (on average – 20-30 seconds). Do you know what is the connection between hearing and memory? In conditions of intense background noise, making it difficult to hear, RAM is the first to suffer. Scientists have determined that the better a person’s memory is developed, the easier it will be to perceive a person’s speech in the presence of various distracting factors (including background noise).
Hearing loss develops slowly. The ability of the brain itself to compensate for adjusting the gradual changes in hearing makes it difficult to recognize hearing loss. That is why it is so important to review your hearing health annually. We recommend annual hearing tests for people from 45 years of age. Finding and treating hearing loss as soon as possible can slow, or even stop depression, social isolation and thus dementia. Hearing loss is a health problem that may require medical attention, so it is important not to ignore it. If you suspect that you suffer from hearing loss or have already been diagnosed, accepting it and taking action soon may improve your quality of life dramatically.
It is worth investing a little time in an evaluation of our hearing since it can save us many problems as we get older. At Attune Hearing, we can guide you through your journey for better hearing. Whether you would like to have your hearing tested by one of our highly qualified Audiologists or are in need of hearing aids, contact us today on 1300 736 702 to book an appointment to preserve a good audition for your life!