Hearing loss and dementia: what’s the connection?
Hearing loss and dementia are both natural consequences of aging. But did you know that hearing loss itself could cause dementia?
Living with a hearing loss
You may think that having a hearing loss doesn’t affect your health – except for your actual hearing. But an untreated hearing loss could have more effects than you’d think, particularly for your mental health.
Dementia is one effect of untreated hearing loss.
Scientists have found that the chances of mental decline go up, the worse your hearing problems are. In fact, a study of older adults with hearing loss found that they had the same mental decline in 7.7 years as other older adults with normal hearing had in 10.9 years.
Did you know?
Roughly 50 million people worldwide have dementia, and nearly 10 million new cases occur every year. Source: WHO
Although researchers are still not sure about the exact connection between hearing loss and dementia, they believe there are several ways that hearing loss could lead to dementia.
It may even be a combination of these things:
- Cognitive load. When you constantly strain to hear and understand, the brain gets stressed out. The resources that would normally go into storing what’s being said in your memory are spent on understanding what’s being said in the first place.
- Brain structure. Hearing loss may affect the structure of your brain in a way that contributes to cognitive problems. Brain imaging studies show that older adults with hearing loss have less grey matter in the part of their brain that receives and processes sounds from the ears. That’s because certain structures of brain cells can shrink when they don't get enough stimulation.
- Social isolation. If it’s hard to hear what people are saying and to follow conversations, you might prefer just to stay home instead of going out and socializing. But when you cut yourself off from your friends, family and your active life, you become less social and less engaged. When your brain doesn’t get enough stimuli throughout the day, you increase your risk of developing dementia.
So how can you maintain your brain health?
Here are a few tips:
- Keep on learning – any new learning activity develops new neural connections in the brain, which may help you bypass any damage to the brain associated with dementia
- Be social – having conversations with people will stimulate your brain
- Exercise at least 30 minutes, five days a week – cardiovascular exercise is particularly beneficial
- Eat lots of vegetables and fruits, along with legumes, fish, olive oil, and nuts and seeds
But remember to also take good care of your hearing
Because it’s important to keep your brain healthy, it’s also important to keep your hearing healthy. So don’t let your hearing loss increase over time. If you suspect you have a hearing loss, get help. Start by taking a free online hearing test.
Hearing aids are a good way to treat your hearing loss if it’s low or moderate – depending on your specific type of hearing loss. If you have a severe or profound hearing loss, cochlear implants may be the best option for you.
A hearing care professional can help you figure out how you can prevent your hearing loss from worsening and keep your grey cells intact.