Hearing loss is very common and it affects people of all ages.
Main causes include hereditary factors, noise exposure, trauma and ear disease. And, of course, age.
Hearing loss is usually gradual. In the beginning, it takes away the beginning of the sentence, the little details and the punchline. With time hearing loss increases mental fatigue as you concentrate harder just to follow along. Your confidence erodes as you are no longer sure about what was said. You feel embarrassed about missing details or having to ask for repeats too often.
Over time, hearing loss causes changes in behaviour,
- environments are chosen where it is easier to hear
- relationships change as everyone adapts to the fact you don’t hear well
- people often socialise less which can lead to less overall physical activity
- Hearing loss also links to memory loss and cognitive decline.
Hearing loss is invisible and sneaky.
As hearing changes, we adjust.
Gradually it affects personality and relationships.
Hearing loss changes us over time. Maree O’Sullivan
Hearing and Cognitive Decline
In 2013, Frank R. Lin, MD, Ph.D observed 1,984 adults over the course of six years, tracking the progression of hearing loss in relation to cognitive function. He found that hearing loss is a factor in loss of mental acuity in older adults.
- those with more severe hearing loss had a greater likelihood of developing a cognitive disorder, and an increased decline in mental function.
- even those with mild hearing loss were more likely to experience cognitive difficulties like memory changes, dementia and increased falls.
The exact link between hearing loss and cognitive decline is not yet fully understood; a possible cause is the increased “cognitive load” caused by the brain being overwhelmed by demands on its limited resources.
When close concentration is needed to follow a conversation, there are less cognitive resources for other things like memory and maintaining balance.
Image from:2015 Understanding BrainHearing™
“Communicating when you have a hearing loss, takes up lot of brain-power. It’s a bit like a computer that runs more slowly when there is a large program running in the background.” says Maree O’Sullivan, Audiologist.
“Declines in hearing abilities may also accelerate gray matter atrophy and increase the listening effort necessary to comprehend speech… Hearing aids may not only improve hearing but preserve the brain,” said Dr. Frank Lin, Associate Professor of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, Geriatric Medicine, Mental Health, and Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins.
As evidence continues to mount that hearing loss is a contributing factor in the development of memory loss and dementia, ignoring hearing loss may have profound consequences. On average, people wait ten years before they seek treatment for hearing loss.
“Considering early diagnosis and medical intervention of hearing loss slows the progression of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, it is more important than ever for patients to get their hearing loss treated sooner rather than later,” said Maree O’Sullivan.