Hearing Loss May Impact Cognitive Decline. Am I Hearing That Right?
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Our brains are incredibly busy, complex organs. But like the rest of our body parts, brains age, and with that comes some normal changes in our ability to think. We may begin to notice difficulty with things like sustaining attention, finding words, multitasking, and hanging onto information as we grow older.1 In fact, researchers believe that our thinking abilities peak at about age 30 and begin to subtly decline after that.2
The good news is that vocabulary, reading, and verbal reasoning stay the same or improve with age—but what about the parts we lose? Is there anything we can do to slow this decline?
How to keep your brain in tip-top shape
According to the Weill Institute for Neurosciences3, we can be proactive when it comes to keeping our brains as healthy as possible as we age. They recommend that older adults
- stop smoking,
- get regular moderate physical activity,
- see your healthcare provider regularly,
- pay attention to your cardiovascular health by watching your blood pressure and cholesterol,
- build strong social support networks to help reduce stress and keep the brain active and stimulated,
- keep doing activities you enjoy and that challenge your brain including learning new things, and
- eat a healthy, balanced diet.
Now hear this!
It may surprise you to know that there is also a connection between our ability to hear and our cognitive function as we age. In fact, studies have shown that hearing loss in older people can be associated with a faster rate of cognitive decline.4
While it’s not entirely clear why, researchers suspect that it could be due to a few reasons.
Scans show that hearing loss may contribute to a faster rate of atrophy in the brain.5 That’s because brain cells shrink from lack of stimulation, including parts of the brain that receive and process sound. So if your brain isn’t being stimulated by all the rich sound it once used to enjoy, that can take its toll on your gray matter.
And speaking of brain stimulation, social connection is wonderful for brain health, but hearing loss can make us want to retreat to the safety and comfort of our homes where we don’t have to worry about not hearing everything going on around us or misunderstanding conversations we’re only catching bits and pieces of.6
When someone with hearing loss does venture out, struggling to listen and trying to process the sounds around them can put their brain on overload—and overloaded brains simply don’t work as efficiently.7
Can hearing aids help?
More study is needed, but because hearing aids help us to reconnect to the world around us, including sounds we’ve been missing and experiences and social situations we may have been avoiding, some researchers suggest they could possibly help delay the onset of cognitive impairment and dementia.8
Interestingly enough, hearing aids may also help keep us on our feet! Your sight isn’t the only thing you use to steady yourself when you’re walking—your ears also play a role in the balancing act by picking up very subtle cues that help keep you upright. Hearing loss impacts the ear’s ability to do this important job, and it also makes your brain work extra hard to process sound. This kind of intense multitasking can impact the mental processing needed to walk safely.9
This is why it’s so important to consider your hearing part of your overall health, particularly as you age. Always talk to your doctor if you notice any new or troubling symptoms and check in with a hearing healthcare professional to have a thorough assessment.
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1, 2, 3 https://memory.ucsf.edu/symptoms/healthy-aging
6, 7 https://www.oticon.com/your-hearing/hearing-health/cognitive-decline