July 25, 2022

Hearing Loss & Mental Decline In Older Adults

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Hearing Loss & Mental Decline In Older Adults

Did you know that hearing loss occurs in the brain?

When a sound wave enters our ears, it travels through the middle ear where it is amplified and to the inner ear where it is transformed into an electric signal. This signal then travels through well-worn neural pathways to the auditory center in our brains, where it is processed and recognized as sounds. With untreated hearing loss, our brains begin to receive unclear signals. This is a form of sensorineural hearing loss. As a result, sounds may appear muffled and our brains will exert more effort to struggle to hear. A number of studies have been conducted in the past decade that link untreated hearing loss and a higher risk for mental decline among older adults.

Study: A Potential Link Between Untreated Hearing Loss & Dementia

At Johns Hopkins University, a study found that people with untreated hearing loss were more likely to develop dementia over the course of 12-18 years. Researchers tracked 639 subjects over a number of years, testing both their hearing abilities and cognitive abilities annually. According to Dr. Frank Lin, the lead researcher of this study, hearing loss affects the brain in three major ways: cognitive load (which taxes brain functions when it struggles to hear), change in brain structure and function, and reduced social engagement.

With untreated hearing loss, these channels may begin to dull and certain areas of the brain are not as active as before. Additionally, hearing loss has isolating affects if left untreated. People who experience untreated hearing loss struggle to make sense of verbal communication, especially in louder social settings. As a result, people who are hard of hearing are less likely to participate in cultural events, hobbies, and social meetings than before. Research on dementia has shown that more social people are less likely to develop dementia, due to consistent engagement with the world around them. These stimulations keep our brains active.

Mental Decline In Older Americans – Dementia And Alzheimer’s Disease

While the link between hearing loss and dementia is not conclusive, researchers have found that the early treatment of hearing loss shows improvement in brain function for older adults.

Though dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are used interchangeably, Alzheimer’s disease is actually a form of dementia and accounts for 60% to 80% of dementia cases. Dementia is a term that describes symptoms of an overall decline in cognitive ability that interferes with daily life. Medical professionals recommend a potential mode of prevention for both dementia and Alzheimer’s disease: keeping the brain fit with mental stimulation and an active social life. With recent studies linking dementia to untreated hearing loss, Americans over the age of 65 should consider getting a hearing test.  

In the US, hearing loss affects one in three people, age 65 and older. According to the aforementioned study from Johns Hopkins, results found that people with untreated hearing loss were more likely to develop dementia than those who had normal hearing or used hearing devices. Additionally, a 2011 study in Japan tracked elderly test subjects with varying levels of hearing. Subjects were given auditory and cognitive examinations over the course of three years. During this time, researchers found that subjects who experienced hearing loss and were prescribed hearing aids early on showed higher cognitive abilities, compared to subjects who left their hearing loss untreated.

How Hearing Aids Improve Brain Function

At the University of Texas at El Paso, Dr. Jamie Desjardins has conducted a series of studies to investigate how hearing aids improve brain function for people with sensorineural hearing loss. In this study, Dr. Desjardins selected a group of people in their 50s and 60s with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, who had not previously used hearing aids.

In this study, subjects took cognitive tests that measured their memory, selective attention, and processing speed abilities prior to and after using hearing aids. “Think about somebody who has hearing loss and is still working and they’re not wearing hearing aids," says Dr. Desjardins. “They are spending so much of their brainpower just trying to focus on listening. They may not be able to perform their job as well. Or if they can, they’re exhausted because they are working so much harder. They are more tired at the end of the day, because it’s a lot more taxing. It affects their quality of life.”

Results revealed that only after two weeks of hearing aid use, participants showed an increase in scores for recalling words, and that their processing speed to the correct answer was much faster.

Treating Hearing Loss With Hearing Aids

If you, or someone you love, is experiencing hearing loss, there is no reason to leave it untreated. In fact, studies have shown the benefits of seeking treatment as soon as possible. For more information on hearing loss and to schedule a consultation, contact us today at Hearing Spa of Florida.


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