Numerous medical studies, research ventures, and data trends have shown that there is a link between hearing loss in old age and the development of dementia but complete understanding of the reasons behind these trends has yet to be completely understood. Researchers are now attempting to unlock the mysterious link between dementia and hearing loss by investigating the effects of hearing loss on the brain. Dr. Frank Lin, a professor at John Hopkins University, has suggested that social isolation, daily stress, and mental overload are three possible factors that may contribute to brain tissue loss and the development of dementia within the scope of increased hearing loss.
Elderly adults who suffer from hearing loss often distance themselves from family, friends, and social situations as a coping method or out of frustration. The lack of cognitive and auditory stimulation outside of social contexts can lead to a deterioration of the hearing and understanding areas of the brain because ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it.’
Numerous studies have proven that a breakdown in communication or understanding, like impaired hearing, creates continuing stress. Stress has shown negative impacts in nearly every area of the body as excess amounts of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline flood the body for long periods of time and your body adjusts to a continuing state of panic or distress. The stress from hearing loss is, unfortunately, no different.
The brain can become overloaded when too many cognitive resources are being used on a single task. As brain function slows in old age this economy of understanding is imperative and there is reason to believe that hearing loss clogs the brain’s precious pathways in lieu of cognitive tasks. When you’re constantly in a distracted state, like attempting to decode and collect sounds, your brain may instinctively move memory processes to the background.
Dr. Lin’s most recent and notable study on the link between hearing loss and dementia followed 638 people with varying levels of hearing and cognitive abilities ranging from normal hearing to severe hearing loss. The study continued with consistent hearing examinations every year or two for 14 years. The collected data concluded that the higher amounts of hearing loss clearly correlated to a higher risk of developing dementia, even in spite of other known risk factors. This rising correlation was quite clear and grew exponentially with worsened hearing loss. Compared to participants with normal hearing, those who developed mild hearing loss were twice as likely to develop dementia, those with moderate hearing loss showed three times the risk for dementia, and those with severe hearing loss were five times more likely to develop dementia. Physical shrinking in regions of the brain in MRI scans along this study showed measurable proof that these risks were growing with hearing loss.
The exact link between hearing loss and dementia may be multifaceted but scientists have proven that there is a correlation and it requires further exploration. Although hearing aid use has not been proven to diminish these risks, it has been supported by the researchers of these milestone studies and it may improve certain related risks, like social isolation, stress, and cognitive flooding. Hearing loss must no longer be treated as a necessary symptom of aging because the research clearly shows that the impending consequences are too important to be ignored.