Imagine having to look through permanently fogged glasses every day. Imagine the strain it would put on your eyes to have to comprehend what you’re seeing through the haze. That’s kind of what it’s like for your brain when you’re experiencing hearing loss or tinnitus (you know – that constant buzzing or ringing sound that just won’t go away).
In recent years, there’s been a lot of research done around the topic of hearing loss and cognitive functioning. Results show that keeping your hearing in check can also keep your brain functioning at a higher capacity and prevent mental decline that often occurs with aging.
Hearing loss makes the brain weaker
We “hear” with our brain. Every time you hear a sound, your brain processes the sound and makes a connection. That connection helps you form meaning around the sound. If you struggle with hearing loss, the connections in the brain that respond to different sounds become reorganized and are therefore assigned to other functions, like vision or touch.
In a study done by Dr. Arthur Wingfield, Brandeir University Professor of Neuroscience, Wingfield found that untreated hearing loss can affect higher-level cognitive function. If you’re experiencing hearing loss, you’re not just struggling to hear a sound accurately – you’re also struggling to process the auditory information and make sense of it.
This reorganization can have a detrimental effect on cognition. Even with mild hearing loss, hearing areas of the brain become weaker. Because of this, areas of the brain that are necessary for higher-level thinking compensate for the weaker areas. Essentially, they take over the job of hearing. That means centers of the brain that are typically used for higher-level decision-making are activated in the simple task of hearing sounds, leaving them unavailable to do their more complicated job of comprehension. This is called compensatory brain reorganization.
Hearing loss can even lead to dementia
If you’re suffering from hearing loss, whether mild or severe, your brain is essentially processing what you’re hearing through a haze of noise. Therefore your brain is using much more effort to comprehend what you’re hearing because it requires all of your attention to distinguish between sounds. Simply put, if you can hear easily, you can spend more of your brainpower doing other cognitively demanding tasks.
If you’re experiencing hearing loss, your brain has to work harder just to process the sounds. And if your brain is busy doing a simple task like deciphering sounds, other functions – like memory or comprehension – start to take the back burner.
It would make sense, then, that there’s a correlation between hearing loss and dementia in older adults. While the brain is working on overdrive to process sounds, it’s not able to focus on memory retention. A study at Johns Hopkins found that individuals with severe, untreated hearing loss were five times as likely to develop dementia compared to those with normal hearing.
How social isolation plays a part
On top of that, hearing loss can often lead to social isolation and depression. If you are struggling to understand conversations, it can become incredibly frustrating and exhausting. A common response to this frustration is to simply quit having conversations, especially in loud, public places where there are so many sounds to sift through. Not surprising that social isolation has long been recognized as a risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia.
Hearing loss is treatable
The good news? These studies linking hearing loss with cognitive decline imply that some cases of dementia may be slowed down or even prevented with hearing aids or cochlear implants. A recent study in France found that cochlear implants had a profound impact on the cognitive scores of older adults with hearing loss. The improvement in cognition was nearly double than that seen with any current FDA drugs for treating Alzheimer’s.
Hearing loss is tricky because it happens so gradually at first. It takes an average of 6-8 years for someone with hearing loss to seek assistance. This is a long time for your brain to start to reorganize and for cognitive function to decrease. Over 27 million Americans over the age of 50 suffer from some sort of hearing loss. However – surprisingly – only 15 percent of those who need a hearing aid actually get one.
In most cases, hearing loss is entirely treatable. Hearing aids help you process incoming sound and make it a whole lot easier for your brain to do its job deciphering what you hear. They have also been proved to reduce feelings of social isolation – if you can hear well, you’re more likely to socialize in groups and go out to public places, like restaurants.
The bottom line? If you treat your hearing problem, your brain can focus on other important tasks – like memory retention and communication skills. Getting regular hearing tests from a licensed audiologist can help identify and prevent loss of hearing, making your brain sharper and your ability to perceive the world unhindered.