Examining the Links Between Hearing Impairment and Loss of Cognitive Abilities

Do you have hearing difficulties? If yes, do you occasionally find that it seems like work just to understand what the people around you are saying? You aren’t the only one. The feeling that listening and understanding is tiring work is typical among individuals with hearing impairment – even the ones that wear hearing aids.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, it may not be just your ability to hear that is impacted, but also cognitive abilities. Hearing impairment substantially raises your risk of contracting Alzheimer’s or dementia according to recent scientific studies.

One such research study was conducted by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine on 639 volunteers ages 36 to 90 over a period of sixteen years. The data indicated that 58 study volunteers – 9 percent of the total – had developed dementia and 37 – 6% – had developed Alzheimer’s. Investigators found that for every 10 decibels of hearing loss, the participants’ chances of developing dementia increased by 20 percent; the more significant the hearing loss, the greater their chance of dementia.

In a similar research study, surveying 1,984 participants, researchers observed a similar connection between hearing loss and dementia, but they also noted that the hearing-impaired experienced measurable decreases in their cognitive functions. Compared to participants with normal hearing, those with hearing loss developed memory loss 40% faster. A pivotal, but depressing, finding in each of the two research studies was that the negative cognitive effects were not lessen by wearing hearing aids. Researchers have offered several hypotheses to explain the association between loss of hearing and loss of cognitive ability. One hypothesis is based on the question at the beginning of this article, and has been given the name cognitive overload. Some believe that if you are hearing-impaired, your brain tires itself out so much just trying to hear that it has a diminished capacity to understand what is being said. This can lead to social isolation, which has been connected to dementia risk in other research studies. A different line of thought, theorizes that hearing loss and dementia are not causally related to each other at all. Instead the theory states that they are each the consequence of a third mechanism. This unknown disorder could be vascular, environmental or genetic in nature.

While the person with hearing loss probably finds these study results dismaying, there is a bright side with valuable lessons to be derived from them.For those people who wear hearing aids, these results serve as a reminder to see our hearing specialists regularly to keep the aids perfectly adjusted and tuned, so that we’re not continually straining to hear. The less energy expended in the mechanics of hearing, the more brain capacity available for comprehension. Also, if hearing loss is linked to dementia, knowing this may lead to interventional methods that can prevent its development.

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