The link between hearing loss and Alzheimer’s has been the subject of extensive research for decades. Numerous studies show that hearing loss can increase the risk of experiencing cognitive decline and the development of conditions like Alzheimer’s. People with hearing loss can be more than twice as likely to experience cognitive decline.
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia – an umbrella term that describes a group of medical conditions characterized by the progressive loss of cognitive functions. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 6.2 million people in the U.S. live with the condition. This number is expected to grow substantially, reaching nearly 13 million by 2050. Because Alzheimer’s is a permanent medical condition, much research focuses on identifying risk factors that can be modified to reduce the risk of its development. Numerous studies reveal that treating hearing loss could help prevent Alzheimer’s.
Link Between Hearing Loss & Alzheimer’s
There is vast research that highlights a correlation between hearing loss and Alzheimer’s. One major study that examines the correlation was by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Published in the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, this study included over 10,000 participants, who were 62 and older. Researchers assessed hearing and cognitive capacities over 8 years and found that people with hearing loss were significantly more likely to experience cognitive decline. Their findings included that cognitive decline among the participants with hearing loss was:
- 30% higher among people with mild hearing loss
- 42% higher among people with moderate hearing loss
- 54% higher among people with severe hearing loss
These 2019 research findings support the existing research highlighting that hearing loss can profoundly increase one’s chances of developing cognitive decline, a key characteristic of conditions like Alzheimer’s. But how exactly does hearing loss affect the brain?
Impact of Hearing Loss on the Brain
Hearing loss impacts the brain in a variety of ways. The process of hearing not only happens in the ears but also in the brain. This means that the areas of the brain responsible for processing and understanding speech as well as sound respond to untreated hearing loss. Experts suggest that hearing loss can impact the brain in the following ways:
- Brain atrophy: the areas of the brain that process sound, including the auditory cortex, become less active as less sound information is coming in. This inactivity means that these portions of the brain are working less. Reduced functioning can cause neural networks to change and these areas to shrink which can contribute to cognitive decline.
- Cognitive overload: hearing loss reduces one’s capacity to detect and process sound. This results in people working harder to hear. Other parts of the brain intervene to help process sound and this additional energy can produce strain. Resulting in cognitive overload, this overactivity can also impact cognitive functions.
Researchers also suggest that social withdrawal – a major effect of untreated hearing loss – contributes to less stimulation for the brain which can impact cognition. Treating hearing loss addresses these potential outcomes by providing the brain with ample support.
Treatment Can Help Prevent Alzheimer’s
Treating hearing results in a myriad of benefits that profoundly improves not only hearing but overall health. Hearing loss is most commonly treated with hearing aids – electronic devices designed to absorb, amplify, and process sound. This alleviates hearing loss symptoms and maximizes an individual’s hearing capacity. Treatment not only strengthens communication but also has positive effects on the brain. Various studies show that hearing aids strengthen cognitive performance. This includes:
- 2020 study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine: researchers at the University of Melbourne assessed the impact of hearing aid use on the brain. They evaluated the hearing and cognitive capacity of nearly 100 participants (ages 62-82) before and 18 months after using hearing aids. They found that 97% of people showed significant improvement or stability of cognitive functions.
- 2018 study published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society: researchers evaluated data on the cognitive capacities of over 2,000 hearing aid wearers. This included assessing results from memory tests. Researchers found that wearing hearing aids increased test scores.
These studies highlight that hearing aids improve cognitive performance. Treating hearing loss provides the brain with critical support that strengthens cognitive functions.
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