Hearing Loss & Cognitive Decline

Hearing Loss & Cognitive Decline

Cognitive decline is a growing public health concern. Dementia is a range of medical conditions that reduce cognitive capacity – problem solving, critical thinking, decision making, memory etc. Impacting 50 million people worldwide, dementia is projected to triple by 2050. There are different forms of dementia including: Lewy Body, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s Disease. Alzheimer’s is the most common type, making up 60-80% of the dementia that people experience. There are no medical interventions that cure dementia so identifying risk factors that can be treated early on remains incredibly important. Emerging research shows a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline. Findings from recent studies reveals that treating hearing loss can prevent or delay the development of dementia. 

Link Between Cognitive Decline & Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is the third most common chronic medical condition that older adults navigate and has long been associated with reduced cognitive performance. Both cognitive decline and hearing loss: 

  • Impact older adults disproportionately 
      • 1 in 8 people have some degree of hearing loss 
        • 25% of adults 65-74 have hearing loss
        • 50% of adults 75 and over have disabling hearing loss 
      • Nearly 6 million people have Alzheimer’s
        • 1 in 10 people age 65 and older has Alzheimer’s
  • Are progressive conditions with multiple causes 

Researchers have suggested that the overlap of these health conditions can highlight potential modifiable risk factors that prevent or delay their progression. Several studies show that there is a relationship between cognitive decline and hearing loss. Findings reveal that hearing loss actually accelerates cognitive decline. 

In a significant 2019 study, researchers found that hearing loss significantly increased the risk of cognitive decline. Researchers collected and analyzed data on hearing loss and cognitive function for 8 years. The study consisted of 10,107 men ages 62 and higher who did not have cognitive concerns at the beginning of the study. After 8 years, researchers found that cognitive decline was: 

  • 30% higher among people with mild hearing loss 
  • 42% higher among people with moderate hearing loss 
  • 54% higher among people with severe hearing loss 

These groundbreaking statistics highlight two important findings: hearing loss contributes to cognitive decline and the severity of the hearing loss increases the risk substantially. 

Impact of Hearing Loss on Cognitive Function

Though more studies investigating how hearing loss accelerates cognitive decline are needed, researchers have suggested a few ways impaired hearing can potentially reduce cognitive ability including: 

  • Brain Atrophy: describes damage to the brain that is caused by various diseases. It refers to the loss of brain cells which destroys connections between neurons and leads to cognitive decline. Hearing loss can cause parts of the brain responsible for how we hear to be underused and this inactivity can affect overall cognitive function.  
  • Cognitive Overload: in navigating the range of symptoms produced by hearing loss, people are forced to exert extra energy in trying to hear. This overworks the brain, impacting cognitive capacity. 
  • Social Withdrawal: to avoid the work of conversations people with hearing loss can withdraw from social engagement. Spending less time with other people and participating in activities means less stimulation and energy for the brain and body.

It is incredibly important to be proactive about your hearing health which can reduce your risk of developing medical conditions like cognitive decline. 

Protect Your Hearing Health

There are numerous ways you can address and protect your hearing health. A few useful ways include: 

    • Get Hearing Tested: we recommend getting a hearing test as part of your usual annual health screening. Hearing tests involve a noninvasive and painless process that measures your hearing ability in both ears. This identifies any impairment, the degree, and specific type of hearing loss you could be experiencing. Hearing tests are the first step of treatment! 
    • Wear Protective Gear: when navigating loud environments, protect your hearing by wearing earmuffs, earplugs, or headphones. This reduces the amount of loud noise you absorb. 
  • Noise Cancellation Headphones: reduce background noise which prevents you from having to increase the volume on personal audio devices. 
  • Listening Breaks: your ears need to rest and recover from absorbing noise all day. So be sure to take listening breaks throughout the day.