Trees depict dementia through hearing loss by dying and losing leaves.

Hearing and dementia — is there a connection? Not long ago, medical science did link these brain-related conditions and loss of hearing. More than one clinical study determined that even mild hearing loss left untreated increases a person’s chance of developing dementia.

Scientists think there is an organic link between these two somewhat unrelated medical problems. How can loss of hearing increase your risk of dementia, though and how does a hearing exam help?

What is Dementia?

The Mayo Clinic states dementia is a group of symptoms that change memory, alter the ability to think concisely and reduce socialization skills. People tend to think of Alzheimer’s disease when they hear dementia probably because it is a common form. Alzheimer’s means progressive dementia that impacts around five million people in the U.S. Today, medical science has a complete understanding of how ear health alters the risk of dementias like Alzheimer’s disease.

How Hearing Works

Your hearing is a sophisticated sense that relies on many mechanisms to work correctly. Sound enters the ear canal in waves and is amplified as it travels to the inner ear. Once there, tiny hair cells vibrate to create electrical impulses that the brain decodes.

Over time, many people suffer a gradual decline in their ability to hear caused years of damage to these delicate hair cells. The result is a loss of electrical impulses to the brain making it harder to understand sound.

Hearing loss is sometimes considered a regular and inconsequential part of aging, but studies show that’s not true. The brain will continue to struggle to decode what messages it does receive and that puts stress on the organ, making you more vulnerable to dementia.

Loss of hearing is a risk factor for many diseases that lead to:

  • Impaired memory
  • Inability to master new tasks
  • Reduction in alertness
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Overall diminished health

The odds of developing dementia increase based on the extent of your hearing loss, too. A person with just a minor impairment has double the risk. The more advanced hearing loss means three times the risk and a person with severe, untreated loss of hearing has up to five times the risk of developing dementia. A 2013 study conducted by Johns Hopkins University monitored cognitive skills for more than 2,000 older adults over a six-year period. They discovered that hearing loss advanced enough to interfere with conversation was 24 percent more likely to cause memory and cognitive problems.

Why a Hearing Exam Matters

Not everyone understands how even a little hearing loss affects their overall health. For most, the decline is gradual, too, so they don’t always realize there is a problem. The human brain likes to adapt as hearing declines, so it is less noticeable.

Getting comprehensive exams gives you and your primary care physician the ability to properly assess hearing health and monitor any decline as it happens. Some forms of hearing loss are a quick fix, too, during the exam. The trauma to the brain doesn’t change just because the hearing loss is due to a buildup of earwax. The faster you deal with this decline, the better the brain can adapt. That may mean getting hearing aidsfor some patients.

Reducing the Risk With Hearing Aids

The current hypothesis is that stress on the brain from hearing loss plays a major role in cognitive decline and different kinds of dementia. Based on that one fact, you might conclude that hearing aids reduce the risk. A hearing assistance device amplifies sound while filtering out background noise that interferes your hearing and that eases that stress. With a hearing aid, the brain will not work as hard to understand the audio messages.

People with completely normal hearing can also develop dementia. What science currently believes is that gradual hearing declines just accelerates the process, increasing the risk of cognitive problems and Alzheimer’s. The key to lowering that risk is comprehensive hearing exams to diagnose and treat age-related hearing loss before it can have an impact on brain health.

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