As we get older, many of us tend to focus on the physical changes we can see in the mirror. We spot the wrinkles and gray hair, but may not notice other, more subtle changes that could be red flags for our health and longevity. For example, recent studies have shown that one specific hearing issue could indicate the onset of cognitive decline. Read on to find out what it is, when you might notice it, and what steps to take next if you do.
Hearing loss can affect brain function.
According to The Lancet, eight percent of dementia cases can be attributed to hearing loss, and a 2019 study published in Neurology looked at the link between hearing loss and the onset of dementia. Researchers examined over 16,270 participants and concluded that hearing loss was associated with accelerated cognitive decline, cognitive impairment, and the development of dementia, especially in people aged 45 to 64. In addition, the study concluded that even low levels of hearing loss can increase the long-term risks of dementia.
There are two main types of impaired hearing: peripheral hearing loss and central hearing loss. Peripheral hearing loss occurs due to issues with the ear structure, whereas central hearing loss is caused by problems with the brain's auditory nerve and sound centers. Peripheral hearing loss is further categorized into sensorineural and conductive HL, with sensorineural being the most common form. This type of hearing loss is often caused by natural aging or noise exposure that damages the inner ear or auditory nerve, while conductive hearing loss is caused by damage or a blockage in the outer or middle ear, preventing sound from making its way through the ear structure.
Hearing problems shouldn't be ignored.
The signs of peripheral hearing loss can vary widely. Symptoms may include pain in one or both ears, dizziness or vertigo, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), and a sense of pressure in one or both ears, as reported by WebMD. "Peripheral hearing loss may begin mildly, where certain sounds or tones seem softer or harder to distinguish," explains Hope Lanter, an audiologist at Hear.com. "Signs may include difficulty hearing in noisy [environments], difficulty distinguishing speech, voices sounding muffled or mumbled, and asking others to repeat themselves frequently."
Lanter adds, "Hearing loss can seriously interfere with your quality of life, leading to feelings of isolation, frustration, embarrassment, higher stress, and anxiety. Therefore, early intervention is critical to be proactive and ensure the best possible outcome."
Peripheral hearing loss could be an early sign of dementia.
If you experience peripheral hearing loss symptoms, you may be at higher risk of dementia, according to a 2020 Lancet commission report. Why? Because peripheral hearing loss increases the "cognitive load" on the brain. Essentially, your brain has to work harder and use more energy on auditory processes at the expense of essential brain functions, such as cognition and memory. In addition, experts hypothesize that peripheral hearing loss can lead to social isolation, another potential contributor to the development of dementia.
"A common misunderstanding about hearing loss is that it only affects the ears. Our ears and brain work together to understand speech and process sounds, and when someone suffers from hearing loss, their brain has to work harder," says Lanter. "It can be more difficult to follow conversations when you have to listen harder, read lips, or use additional context clues to get the message. This extra stress on your brain can put you at an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia."
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Visit your doctor if you experience hearing loss.
Early detection of peripheral hearing loss is critical for delaying the progression and onset of dementia. Even mild hearing loss can double your risk of developing dementia, according to a 2014 study published in Aging Mental Health. The study also found that people with severe hearing loss were at five times higher risk of developing dementia.
If you notice changes in your hearing, the first step is to book a consultation with a hearing care specialist. They're best able to assess your hearing, recommend a solution, and set you on the path to a better quality of life. A specialist may recommend hearing aids, which can significantly reduce cognitive decline and dementia risk due to hearing loss. A study published in the American Journal of Audiology found that wearing hearing aids in the first three years of a hearing loss diagnosis reduced dementia risk by 18 percent, depression and anxiety by 11 percent, and fall-related injuries by 13 percent.
"Proper hearing care is vital to a healthy life," says Lanter. "Hearing loss can often happen slowly over time, and some people may not realize they're having difficulty hearing until someone brings it to their attention. So the best prevention is early intervention."