Did you know there’s a link between dementia and hearing loss?
The ways in which hearing loss affects daily functioning differ for everyone with diminished hearing.
For those who have developed hearing loss gradually, the symptoms may not be apparent for years, while others lose auditory function much more abruptly because of immediate exposure to ear-damaging volumes of noise.
The effects of hearing loss are more than just physical. Left undiagnosed or untreated, it can interfere with daily communication and erode relationships. Children born with hearing loss may experience communicative or linguistic delays and often suffer from attention and/or hyperactivity disorders due to straining to hear and understand speech. These struggles have long been linked to social isolation and shame, which can lead to stress, depression, and anxiety. For the elderly, the constant effort to hear can lead to mental exhaustion, which studies indicate aggravate symptoms of dementia and other cognitive disorders. The high comorbidity rate of hearing loss is just one of the reasons it is so important to seek a solution promptly.
Hearing loss is invisible, but it doesn’t have to be silent. Starting a conversation with a friend, family member, or medical professional is the first step toward recovery and may convince others to pay more attention to their hearing health as well. When properly fitted, hearing aids improve communication for at least 90 percent of people with hearing loss and can significantly boost a wearer’s quality of life.
The physical issues surrounding hearing loss
The ear is responsible for much more than hearing. Located in the inner ear, the vestibular system includes three fluid-filled, semicircular canals that respond to movement. The brain registers changes in fluid, establishing your body’s sense of balance and equilibrium. If any part of this system is disrupted, it can result in chronic dizziness or vertigo.
Labyrinthitis and vestibular neuritis are inner ear infections that can cause disorientation and nausea. Ménière’s disease, which affects the ear’s fluid-filled labyrinth, can result in hearing loss and tinnitus in addition to dizziness. Because these disorders, and hearing loss in general, affect balance and spatial recognition, the risk of falling among people with even a mild hearing loss is three times higher than for those with normal hearing.
No matter what the cause of hearing loss, the physical consequences almost always include headaches, fatigue, and tension. The stress and emotional impact of this can lead to trouble sleeping and eating.
The cognitive impact of untreated hearing loss
Hearing loss is often the result of some physical trauma or degenerative condition of the ear or auditory system. However, what begins as a bodily problem can quickly become a psychological one—if severe enough, this sensory deprivation can be mentally debilitating. While the way each person copes with their diagnosis will depend on multiple factors, everyone who is hard of hearing would agree that hearing loss makes communicating difficult and frustrating.
Unfortunately, the brain is not a muscle that gets stronger when overworked. Studies have found that straining to listen to a conversation partner for a prolonged period can cause damage to the neural pathways of the brain. For this reason, those with hearing loss are at a much higher risk of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. According to multiple studies conducted by Johns Hopkins Associate Professor and otolaryngologist Dr. Frank Lin, the risk of dementia in those with even just a mild hearing loss is more than twice as high as it is for someone with normal hearing. It has also been linked to accelerated brain tissue loss and general decline in cognitive function.
Because hearing loss is often gradual, many people spend years in denial that their hearing is worsening. In fact, the average person waits about seven to ten years after a diagnosis to be fitted for their first hearing aid. Eventually, the way the world used to sound is forgotten and the reduced clarity of the environment and language becomes the new normal. In the meantime, your brain is working on overdrive to compensate for the lack of auditory information, accelerating cognitive atrophy.
When hearing loss leads to social isolation, it can damage communication skills. Left untreated, the ability to recognize social cues and pay attention to conversations can decrease drastically. Limiting conversation and social interaction will also weaken vocabulary and other tools needed for intelligent expression.
The emotional toll of hearing loss
A 1999 study by the National Council on Aging linked hearing loss in the elderly to a number of psychological disorders. Those who didn’t wear hearing aids but struggled to communicate were far more likely to show signs of depression and anxiety, alienation, impaired memory, and more. Social isolation, suspiciousness, and lowered self-esteem are among the first signs of emotional distress noticed by friends and family members.
Depression in the elderly as a result of hearing loss is not temporary. In many cases, it is severe enough that social interaction becomes highly undesirable, if not impossible. In addition, vision loss is a common comorbidity of hearing loss. Left untreated, this dual impairment could significantly reduce your quality of life and ability to communicate in even the most accommodating environments.
The same studies that link hearing loss to emotional distress also strongly encourage the use of hearing aids. From feelings of self-worth to relationships with friends and family, hearing aid wearers demonstrated significant improvement in almost all areas of life after getting their devices. This improvement was also noted by family members, with 66 percent reporting a better relationship with their hard of hearing loved one.
Overcoming the embarrassment of hearing loss is the first step toward recovery. In a world where over 360 million people experience hearing loss, no one should feel ashamed of their diagnosis. Hearing aids of the past may have made wearers stand out from the crowd, but the micro-technology and innovative designs of today’s models make them nearly invisible and easier to use. While negative feelings associated with your hearing loss might make it difficult to find the motivation to seek treatment, rediscovering the joys of life and communicating with loved ones is well worth the effort required to get your hearing loss diagnosed, and purchasing and maintaining recommended hearing aids.
Your health matters most
No matter the degree of your hearing loss, you deserve to live life to its fullest. Don’t wait until hearing loss has ravaged your health to take the first step. Schedule an appointment with a hearing care professional and regain control of your health and happiness.