Do you have hearing problems? If yes, do you occasionally find that it feels like work just to understand what the people near you are saying? This sense of having to work to understand people is normal even among people who wear hearing aids, because they need to be fitted and tuned correctly to work right, and you need to get accustomed to using them.

Sad to say, the fallout of this phenomenon might not be restricted to hearing loss; it might also be linked to declines in cognitive function. Hearing impairment significantly raises your chance of contracting Alzheimer’s or dementia according to recent studies.

One particular study was conducted by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine on 639 individuals between the ages of 36 and 90 16-year period. The investigators found that at the end of the research project, 58 of the participants (9 percent) had developed dementia, and 37 (5.8%) had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. They found that for every 10 decibels of hearing loss, the participants’ odds of developing dementia went up by 20 percent; the more significant the hearing loss, the higher their chance of dementia.

A different 16-year research study with 1,984 participants revealed a similar association between hearing loss and dementia, but also observed noticeable degradation in cognitive function in the hearing-impaired. In comparison to participants with normal hearing, those with hearing loss developed memory loss 40% faster. A crucial, but depressing, finding in both research studies was that the adverse cognitive effects were not lessen by using hearing aids. Various hypotheses have been proposed to explain this apparent connection between hearing loss and loss of cognitive faculties. One of these explanations is related to the question that started this article, about needing to work harder to hear; this has been called cognitive overload. The cognitive overload theory suggests that the hearing-impaired individual expends so much brain energy working to hear, that the brain tires itself out and has a diminished capacity to understand and absorb verbal information. Maintaining a two-way dialogue requires understanding. An absence of understanding causes interactions to break down and may bring about social isolation. A different line of thought, theorizes that hearing loss and dementia are not causally related to each other at all. Rather the theory suggests that they are each the result of a third player. This unknown mechanism could be genetic, environmental or vascular in nature.

While the individual with hearing loss probably finds these study results depressing, there is a good side with important lessons to be derived from them.If you use hearing aids, visit your audiologist on a regular basis to keep them fitted, adjusted, and programmed correctly, so that you’re not straining to hear. The less work used in the mechanics of hearing, the more brain capacity available for comprehension. Also, if loss of hearing is related to dementia, knowing this might bring about interventional techniques that can delay its onset.

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