Researchers have identified a connection between risk for dementia or loss of cognitive abilities and hearing loss. Hearing aids may be able to help.
Dr. Frank Lin, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, conducted a study tracking the cognitive health of patients for 12 years and found that patients with more severe hearing loss at the beginning of the study were much more likely to have higher risk for dementia.
In fact, even patients with only moderate hearing loss were found to be three times more likely to develop dementia. Since the area of the brain that processes sound is close to the area of the brain in which Alzheimer’s usually starts, this could increase the risk of hearing loss leading to mild cognitive loss and dementia. Thankfully, hearing aids can mitigate the hearing loss and help prevent cognitive health from diminishing due to hearing loss.
Hearing Aids, Hearing Loss and Brain Mass
Why are hearing aids the solution to keeping up your cognitive health? Researchers including Dr. Lin have linked hearing loss to accelerated decrease in brain mass, which leads to lower cognitive abilities.
As one’s hearing loss progresses, the area of the brain that processes the auditory information it receives shrinks. Similar to how muscles atrophy after you stop exercising or using them, the part of the brain that processes sound information shrinks since it simply isn’t being used as much as it was before.
Using hearing aids reintroduces this part of the brain to more sound signals, and this increased stimulation may result in the brain growing back to its initial size, allowing for more neural connections. Continuing with the muscle analogy, the more “exercise” the brain gets, the more connections brain cells make, which helps it recover to its original size.
Investing in Hearing Aids
Although they may take a while to adjust to, the study suggests that hearing aids are important for reducing the effects hearing loss has on deteriorating brain mass. Dr. Lin and his colleagues are continuing the study by tracking the progress of hearing impaired adults with hearing aids versus those without treatment, but the results won’t be available until at least 2020.
Still, researchers highly suggest using hearing aids, since they’re an easy prevention measure against accelerated loss in cognitive abilities. Only about 20% of hearing impaired people use hearing aids, and experts say that the number should be much higher, especially given the high correlation between hearing loss and depression.
It’s important to identify the type of hearing loss you have and to consult an audiologist before making major decisions. Ask our audiologist, Dr. Tammy Flodmand, any questions you may have about hearing aids and hearing loss, and she’ll answer them in her weekly column of “Ask the Audiologist”.