Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline Go Hand in Hand

Hearing loss is now associated with many physical conditions, and in the last few years, it has been proven that hearing loss is connected with cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and dementia. 

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Research from Ohio State University found that young people with subtle hearing loss are altering their brain function in ways typically only seen in older adults. As a result, they could be paving the way for dementia.

Researcher Yune Lee and his team monitored the brain activity of study participants 18 through 41 years of age as they listened to increasingly complex sentences. The team wanted to know if our brains work measurably harder to comprehend more complex messages. 

Instead, they unexpectedly discovered that participants with subtle hearing loss (everyone’s hearing was tested before the monitoring took place) showed activity in the brain’s right frontal cortex, a part not usually used to process language until much later in life. 

Hearing loss and dementia

With the growing body of evidence linking hearing loss to dementia, Lee noted the findings could be worrisome. “If you put all your energy into hearing, you drain cognitive resources that could be used for other things such as memory and attention.” 

“it’s like withdrawing money from a retirement account too early. You’re going to need that down the road.” 

- Researcher Yune Lee, Ohio State University

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Lee went on to say that if, as the study suggests, this is happening earlier (due, perhaps, to subtle hearing loss caused by the growing use of headphones), “it’s like withdrawing money from a retirement account too early. You’re going to need that down the road.”

It’s just one more reason why hearing prevention — and regular hearing checks — are important at every age, and why early hearing loss treatment is recommended. 

Hearing loss and Alzheimer’s

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the National Institute on Aging found that while the brain shrinks with age, this change is hastened in older adults with hearing loss.

Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues studied the differences in brain changes (e.g., how much the brain shrinks) based on data from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging where 126 patients were studied over the course of 10 years. Using routine brain scans and hearing tests, the team measured the width of the brain tissue for each subject and found that the subjects who had entered the study with hearing loss exhibited accelerated rates of brain atrophy when compared to those subjects who had normal hearing.

Those with hearing loss saw the following results:

  1. Accelerated rates of brain shrinkage
  2. Loss over an additional 1 cubic centimer of brain tissue each year compared to those with normal hearing
  3. More shrinkage in superior, middle and inferior temporal gyri (structures of the brain responsible for processing sound and speech)

While Lin said it was no surprise those with hearing loss saw more shrinkage in the areas responsible for sound and speech as that may occur due to an “impoverished auditory complex”— the results of the hearing loss itself. He also said that because those areas don’t work alone, their diminishment may signal overall degradation of the brain. For example, the middle and inferior temporal gyri also help with memory and sensory integration and have been shown to be in involved with early stages of Alzheimer’s.  

The findings of this research indicate that hearing loss and Alzheimer’s are correlated, but what it also shows is that there is urgency to treating hearing loss early. Lin suggested that if the hearing loss is contributing to the brain changes they found in the MRIs, it is key to take action early. 

Getting your hearing checked and treated early could mean better long-term brain performance, a lesser chance of Alzheimer’s and dementia, and overall, better long-term health and wellness. A recent study has even shown getting your hearing checked early can help prevent cognitive decline.

Contact us today and make an appointment to have your hearing tested.

- Content provided courtesy of Starkey

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