Hearing Loss and Cognition

The link between dementia and hearing loss may not seem direct at first glance, but both conditions have a lot to do with the processing our brain does help us think, understand, and function in the world. Cognition is responsible for our hearing and vision, our balance and coordination, retrieving memories and solving problems. Without cognition, we couldn’t understand the speech and sound signals our ears detect.

When we hear a noise, tiny sensory nerves in the ears’ cochlea convert the soundwave to an electric signal and send it to the brain. The brain uses auditory pathways to recognize and respond to sound, deciphering the meaning of speech, detecting the direction of danger or simply enjoying a favorite piece of music.

Hearing loss disrupts the brain’s ability to instantaneously and fluidly comprehend sound. Instead, hearing becomes slower and less accurate. The sound signals being sent from the ears are incomplete, and the mind has to struggle to fill in the blanks in order to create meaning from the fragments. It’s a little like filling in a crossword puzzle with only half the clues - it will go a lot slower, be a lot harder and some spaces will never get filled in.

In order to make sense of sound the brain has to bring in extra focus and concentration. Hearing loss thus changes the cognitive patterns of the brain. Attention is pulled away from other cognitive functions and redistributed towards hearing. The brain overwrites the auditory pathways it used to process healthy hearing with new patterns.

The result is a big and near-constant increase on our cognitive load. Hearing loss can be exhausting and impair our ability to perform other cognitive tasks. Untreated hearing loss increases a person’s risk of falls and accidents because the mental demands of hearing loss leave less cognitive resources for balance and coordination.

The Connection to Dementia

Treating Hearing Loss

The cognitive strain that untreated hearing loss causes is thought to be a contributing factor to the development and progression of dementia. Dementia, marked by noticeable cognitive decline, affects many areas of daily functioning including memory, the ability to perform everyday tasks, mood and even perception of reality.

Leaving hearing loss untreated creates a constant cognitive stressor on the mind. The multitude of jobs that the mind coordinates, processes and performs can become more difficult to perform as hearing takes up more energy. This imbalance of cognitive functions plus the added strain on functioning can make us vulnerable to cognitive problems, such as dementia.

The increased risk of dementia is a serious issue for people with hearing loss. Untreated hearing loss can make the chance of developing dementia greater by over 50% - in some studies untreated hearing loss has indicated nearly a 70% greater risk for dementia.

Medical studies are also finding that untreated hearing loss worsens the signs of dementia. Patients with the combination of dementia and untreated hearing loss consistently perform worse on cognitive tasks than patients with dementia who have healthy hearing. There is good news, however. People with dementia and hearing loss have shown signs of cognitive improvement when hearing aids are used.

In fact, for most people hearing aids and assistive devices can go a long way in mitigating the cognitive stress of hearing loss. Although most hearing loss is permanent, hearing aids help people experience a more complete sound palette making comprehension and communication much easier.

Hearing aids have a multitude of benefits, cognitive relief being one of them. Using hearing aids improves your understanding and response time to sound and improves your quality of life. By alleviating some of the mental burden that hearing loss causes, people who use hearing aids to treat their hearing loss perform better on both hearing comprehension and cognitive tasks. When you have a hearing issue, it’s important to stay on top of your health and seek treatment. That’s why Beaufort Sound is here. We’re experts at custom hearing solutions that fit your lifestyle.

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