By the time we reach our 70s, two-thirds of people have hearing loss.
For more than 48 million Americans, if hearing loss is left untreated, it may increase the risk of cognitive problems and even dementia, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America.
If this connection holds up, as shown in several recent studies, it raises the possibility that treating hearing loss could help keep our brains in better shape. In fact, scientists have found that a person’s chances for mental decline seem to go up the worse their hearing problems are.
“When we have even a small amount of hearing loss, the signal becomes degraded and greater cognitive resources are required to process that sound, specifically in the aging population,” says Dr. Sandra Prentiss, an audiology expert with the University of Miami Health System. “The problem of processing the sound is exacerbated when listening in noise.”
Primary physicians say that it is normal to have high frequency loss as we get older. “Clarity of speech comes from those high frequencies. If we miss high frequencies, we miss whole words and their meanings,” she says.
Certain structures of brain cells can shrink when they don't get enough stimulation. Brain imaging studies have shown that older adults with hearing loss have less gray matter in the part of their brain that receives and processes sounds from the ears. Getting clearer speech signals to the brain through use of a hearing aid may allow these brain structures to recover their previous size and function.
The risk of being alone.
When people are hard of hearing and struggle to converse, they’re less likely to socialize or go out to restaurants and other places that have a lot of background noise. And being socially isolated has long been recognized as a risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia.
There’s no downside to using hearing aids. In fact, in one pilot study, people with dementia started wearing inexpensive, over-the-counter devices to boost their hearing. A month later, their caregivers reported improved communication and more laughter.
“Studies show that, on average, people have noticeable hearing loss for 10 years before seeking treatment," says Dr. Prentiss. "That makes it harder to adjust. After years of auditory deprivation, it is harder to make the signal clear. It is still worth treating, but earlier is better.”
With the complexity and choices availables, it is important to have a skilled audiologist fit your aids to your specific level of hearing loss. If the hearing aid is aimed at the wrong type of hearing loss or environment where you spend most of your time, you will be less successful. It’s like having the wrong eyeglass prescription.
Why don’t people get their hearing treated?
There are four issues that affect a person’s willingness to get their hearing loss treated, says Dr. Prentiss. They are:
- Expense: Good hearing aids aren’t cheap and Medicare doesn’t cover them, but most audiology departments have access to benefits to help people greatly reduce their cost.
- Stigma: People tend to associate hearing aids with disability and aging. Again, Dr. Prentiss suggests that they are akin to wearing glasses. Being hard of hearing is much more noticeable without hearing aids than with them. Most modern hearing aids have a discrete design.
- Word of mouth: If you heard about someone who had a negative experience with getting hearing aids, it can be discouraging.
- Being told they don’t need them: Many people, when they finally get checked, reported being told they had ‘just high frequency loss’ and so didn’t need them, thus delaying their ability to correct the problem.
What should I do to slow my risk for mental decline?
- Get your hearing checked once a year after age 40, just like you have a physical. Hearing degrades gradually, and prevalence doubles with every decade in life starting in the 4th decade. You may want to get tested earlier if your parents or grandparents experienced hearing loss — there is also a genetic link.
- If you smoke, stop. Smoking destroys the cilia in your ear's cochlea that transmit sound.
- Follow healthy habits: Heart health is directly linked to brain health. Eat a low-fat nutritious diet, exercise; along with diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol control.
- Protect yourself from loud noises: Sustained noise, coming from headphones, concerts, leaf blowers, and other activities can cause harm. Noise exposure earlier in life can be linked to later hearing loss, but we have to continue to protect what we have.
Hearing loss and dementia are related, and both contribute to a reduced quality of life. Treating hearing loss early and taking other steps to challenge ourselves and reduce social isolation can only improve our outlook on life.
Mary Jo Blackwood, RN, MPH, is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News. Based in St. Louis, MO, and Colorado, she has written medical articles and webpages for consumer publications and major university health centers.
READ MORE: Do you have hearing loss?