Associated Risks: The Connection Between Hearing Loss & Memory Loss
Being diagnosed with hearing loss can provoke various emotions and become overwhelming for you and your family. While your immediate concerns may focus on the direct ways hearing loss will impact your life, some additional risks are associated that often go undiscussed.
Some of the most common medical conditions linked to hearing loss include high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, brain injury, bacteria and viruses, tumours and memory loss. Although there is a clear correlation, being diagnosed with hearing loss does not automatically mean you will suffer these other conditions. Instead, and to put your worries at ease, it means it is ever so important to be aware of these hidden risks so you can prevent and minimise any symptoms that may arise.
In Australia alone, hearing loss affects 74% of people over 70, meaning you are not alone in your frustration. Global studies have identified that people with severe hearing loss are five more times likely to develop symptoms of dementia. While this is a rather alarming statistic, there are ways to protect your health and minimise the risk of memory loss.
Many health professionals understand that the greatest concern for older people in the community has continuously changed over time but is now consistently proving to be the risk of dementia. While this is a valid concern, it is important to stress that not all people with hearing loss will get dementia; it is simply an increased risk.
Knowledge is power, so allow us to explain the connection between hearing loss and memory loss so that you can help yourself or a loved one prevent, identify and treat the associated risks.
The Connection Between Hearing Loss & Memory Loss
Depending on the individual, certain types of hearing loss are associated with memory loss and thinking problems, also called mild cognitive impairment.
As this connection is not enticing, research centres, including the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing, UNSW Sydney, and Macquarie University’s Centre for Ageing, have undertaken research collaborations to investigate the situation further. They confirmed a significant association between self-reported hearing loss and cognition, including an increased risk for mild cognitive impairment, memory loss or dementia.
Ultimately, these studies and research efforts have discovered that people with moderate to severe hearing difficulties had poorer cognitive performances overall. This specifically included attention and processing speed and identifying visual and spatial relationships. As core factors for efficient memory function, these people are at 1.5 times greater risk of developing mild cognitive impairment or dementia.
Specifically, hearing can affect memory in several ways, including:
When you experience hearing loss, you have to concentrate much more to simply recognise sounds. Ultimately, increased concentration levels are linked to cognitive overload.
Cognitive overload, where the brain becomes too busy trying to listen to and interpret the sounds, leaves little room for the brain to memorise the content. Consequently, the increased concentration required to follow a conversation can drastically reduce the ability to remember information.
Untreated hearing loss, or simply hearing loss in general, can, unfortunately, lead to loneliness and isolation. Specifically, the change in lifestyle induced by hearing loss typically means a reduction in socialising and more time trying to manage your symptoms.
Being isolated is only lonely, but it can mean that your brain is exposed to much fewer stimuli. As a result, your brain doesn’t need to work as hard and will become less active after extended periods.
As brains are built to function actively, the structural integrity is likely to change if not used as intended. Simply put, isolation means your memory function is not being exercised as often, reducing your brains capacity to remember.
Anxiety and depression
While anxiety and depression can be symptoms of many conditions and behaviours and vice versa. It has been shown to have a definitive link between hearing loss and memory loss.
If hearing loss isn’t treated effectively, it can increase the risk of developing emotional and psychological issues such as anxiety and depression. Being diagnosed with hearing loss can be extremely overwhelming and result in unpredictable mental distress.
Studies have continuously shown that depression and anxiety can change the way brains operate, including retaining and recalling information on demand. Ultimately, the connection between hearing loss and anxiety and depression puts patients at a higher risk of developing memory loss.
Identifying Hearing Related Memory Loss
While the link is prevalent, determining when you may be experiencing hearing-related memory loss can be more difficult.
Proven to be constantly active, our brains are incredibly powerful and are something we want to take good care of. The direct link between hearing-related memory loss and brain health makes it ever so important your brain is healthy at any age.
While brain health is important at any age and prevents the risks of hearing-related memory loss, certain age groups are at higher risk. Changes start to occur in the brain once you reach middle age (45-65 years), making these risks more common within this age group and above.
Understanding how at-risk you are is the first step to identifying any hearing-related memory loss. Generally speaking, if you begin to show any symptoms of memory loss, ask your GP to test for cognition.
You may assume that if you are only experiencing mild hearing loss, you aren’t necessarily at risk of memory loss. However, any level of hearing loss has the potential to cause cognitive overload, making it important you have your hearing tested at first sight of any issues. Having routine tests is the best way to ensure no further problems with your hearing or any additional health issues such as memory loss.
Treating and Preventing Memory Loss
As mentioned, changes within the brain and subsequent hearing and memory loss become more common as you age. Therefore, treating and addressing midlife hearing loss has shown the potential to prevent up to 9% of new dementia cases and lower the risk of memory loss.
Isolation is one of the most prevalent behavioural connections between hearing loss and memory loss. To counteract this, actively avoiding socially isolating is an important preventative measure. However, we understand that this can be difficult under the emotional and physical circumstances and stress that come with newly diagnosed hearing loss.
Enhancing hearing function is the most optimal way to prevent subsequent memory loss. This means regularly getting your hearing checked and opting for hearing aids that best benefit you and your hearing condition.
Wearing hearing aids early on has proven to ensure your brain isn’t as highly subjected to structural changes due to isolation, reduced brain activity, anxiety, and depression.
While prevention is always best, sudden hearing loss cannot always be avoided. To reduce the risk of associated hearing loss, it is ideal to:
- Keep physically active
- Avoid smoking and only drink alcohol in moderation
- Eat a balanced diet
- Be socially active
- Manage any current health issues (diabetes, cholesterol, depression, etc.)
- Undertake cognitive training
- Look after your hearing and manage hearing loss
Despite how common hearing loss can be, being diagnosed can be extremely daunting and initially challenging to manage.
However, the subsequent risks of undiagnosed or improperly treated hearing loss make regular hearing tests and risk management essential.
If you or a loved one are struggling with their hearing, do not hesitate to visit your audiologist for peace of mind. Getting an early diagnosis can prevent many additional health risks and help ensure your health and wellbeing.
To book a hearing test, contact your local Attune Audiologist whenever you’re ready to take control of your hearing health.