Even a Mild Hearing Loss Contributes to Cognitive Decline

Do you or someone you love who suffers from hearing loss? If so, you know how frustrating it can be. Not only does it make it difficult to hear, but it can make socializing just downright exhausting. For years, many insurance companies have downplayed the importance of hearing health, most likely as a way to avoid providing coverage for the estimated 48 million people in the United States. Beyond communication issues, hearing loss has been documented to have an impact on cognitive performance, so severe that it may increase the risk of developing dementia, earlier or at all. Now research is uncovering unsettling news. Even a mild hearing loss may cause lowered cognitive performance.

Higher Rates of Dementia with Hearing Loss

When you understand how hearing loss affects cognition, it’s no surprise that it increases the risk of dementia. Dementia is a grouping of neurodegenerative diseases which impedes two or more cognitive functions and is rarely reversible. We collect sounds with our ears but listening and hearing happens in the brain. Most cases of hearing loss occur when damage occurs to the tiny cells of the inner ear, impeding the delivery of sound from the ears to the brain. As a result, your brain has to strain to follow conversations with missing pieces of information and this can cause listening fatigue and exhaustion from what others may consider a minor social interaction. 

For years researchers have assumed that hearing loss must get to a moderate to severe level to have a lasting impact on cognitive performance. However, a recent study has found that cognitive strain and decline may start even with a mild hearing loss.

A Study Uncovering the Cognitive Risk of a Mild Hearing Loss

The loudness of sounds is measured in decibels and based upon your last hearing exam, if you can only hear sounds once they measure 30 dBA or higher, you are considered to have a mild hearing loss. A mild hearing loss in the past has rarely been considered serious enough to address. However, based on a recent study we are now more concerned about the early stages of hearing loss and its impact on our total well-being and quality of life.

Based on a combination of results gathered by the Hispanic Community Health Survey and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study.

 National Health and Nutrition Examination Study, and the Hispanic Community Health Survey the researchers were able to have access to data concerning 6,451 participants 50 years and older. They defined a mild hearing loss as a deficit in hearing as the ability to only hear sounds 15 dBA and higher and found overwhelmingly lower cognitive scores, even at this subtle hearing loss level.

Understanding the Findings

Study lead, Dr. Justin Golub is an assistant professor in the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center explains that the brain must work much harder to simply decode words when hearing loss is present, even mild, or slight hearing loss. Dr. Golub drew a strong comparison to mental fitness and physical fitness, meaning that hearing loss even at a mild level creates auditory deprivation to the brain, reducing its workload and causing decline very early on in the process.

Brain Health Requires Constant Stimulation

To maintain the neural pathways and to maintain mass our brain requires constant stimulation.  When the auditory cortex is not being used to process sound, due to a hearing loss even at a slight level it will begin to recruit other parts of the brain to gather meaning, location of sound and more from, for example, the frontal cortex which would otherwise handle social intelligence.  This can lead to brain atrophy and overload as the frontal cortex is overloaded with both the task of decoding sound as language and interpreting meaning. 

Addressing a Hearing Loss

The longer you put off a hearing loss the more of an impact hearing loss will have on your cognitive health. The important thing to remember is that while hearing loss is irreversible, it can be treated using hearing aids. These technological marvels help to amplify the sounds you struggle to hear which will ease the strain on your brain and often deter the effects of cognitive decline. To find out if hearing aids are right for you, schedule an appointment with us today.