How untreated hearing loss can lead to dementia
As 2020 draws to a close, we are choosing to reflect on one of the issues that affects some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, that has been somewhat eclipsed by the ongoing COVID pandemic.
Hearing loss, and how it can lead to dementia
Dementia is a serious condition that, in layman’s terms, is the decline of cognitive function in older people. As the brain ages, it becomes damaged, and as we live longer and longer, this damage becomes more evident in more and more people.
What is often misunderstood about dementia however is that while it can be considered somewhat inevitable, as all brains must degrade eventually, it can be delayed in such a way that makes it a short ordeal at a time when it is to be expected, instead of a long drawn out affair spanning years if not decades.
One of the most important ways to achieve this is by maintaining a high level of mental and social stimulus, and this is where we enter our area of expertise: hearing loss.
How does hearing loss occur?
Before we move on to the effects of hearing loss on the mind, let’s first touch on how the loss can occur in itself. Whilst it may seem obvious that loud noises damage hearing, this is not the only way that your hearing could decline.
In general everyone’s hearing degrades with time, with around a 3rd of people over the age of 55 suffering from some form of hearing loss. Then there is the wide range of other conditions that can cause hearing loss either from birth, in childhood or later in your adult life. Finally we have the “obvious” method of being exposed to extremely loud noises for short periods of time, or continuous exposure to moderately loud noises over a greater period.
To find out more about the specific types of hearing loss and their causes, read our article on the subject here.
Dementia as a result of hearing loss
So how can a loss of hearing lead to a loss of memory? In recent years several studies have been carried out that identify 2 factors for dementia that can be attributed to hearing loss: lack of mental or social stimulation and an overload of the brain’s function.
Lack of stimulation
The brain, like most other physical parts of your body, should be treated in the same way as a muscle in that without use, it atrophies. While you can exercise to keep the actual muscles in your body healthy, exercising your brain can prove more difficult. One of the most important ways we keep our brains healthy is by socialising with one another.
When we have a conversation our brains are always working hard to keep up with listening, understanding and replying, even before we then remember old stories, recall facts and come up with witty responses. This back and forth is a great way of keeping the mind at work, strengthening the proverbial muscles within.
For those suffering with unchecked hearing loss however, this method of keeping the mind young can become more and more difficult, lowering its effectiveness and at a point causing the sufferer to withdraw from these conversations altogether. The frustration of not being able to understand the words someone is saying, or the need to have words repeated over and over makes flowing conversation difficult, and puts unhelpful stress on the mind. And this leads us to the second risk factor for hearing loss related dementia.
Overloading the brain
As Sherlock Holmes famously believed: the mind is an attic, and must be well organised. While not strictly accurate, it does help to explain the idea of overloading the brain. In Holmes’ metaphor the mind is a finite space, and so can at some point be considered “full”. In the case of hearing loss, the brain has to divert its processing power to the hearing to compensate for the diminished performance. This reallocation of resources takes the brain’s power from other areas, most commonly memory.
With this in mind, it is an accepted theory that as hearing worsens so does memory as the brain tries it’s hardest to compensate. So how can you take this strain away from your brain, and keep your memory in tip top condition?
How to reduce the risks of dementia caused by hearing loss
The first precaution we should all be taking against hearing loss is understanding when we have it. Hearing loss often worsens gradually, and so getting regular hearing tests is essential in keeping track of your hearing health.
If you do find that your hearing has declined either suddenly or gradually, rest assured there are ways to compensate for the loss without running the risk of damaging your mental health.
The evolution of the modern hearing aids in the last decade has provided us with new technology that properly fulfills the requirements of those who wear them: sound quality, adjustability, adaptability and longevity. Gone are the days of simply having an amplifier in your ear which can be prone to peaking and screeching, leading many to simply discard them and put up with the difficulty hearing. Today’s technology features smart devices that are comfortable, discrete and work with your natural hearing to create a clean and crisp sound.
The effectiveness of hearing aids in battling hearing loss related dementia has been evidenced in several studies, most notably one in France. Professor Helene Amieva conducted a study following 3,777 people over the age of 65 for a 25 year period. Of her participants just under 1300 reported hearing loss, and just under 2300 reported that their hearing was okay. The researchers then assessed the two groups for the impact of hearing loss on mental illness, depression and of course dementia.
Their findings were that sufferers of hearing loss were at a highly increased risk of disability and dementia, but they could not find these associations in people using hearing aids! While inconclusive, and with further testing on the matter required, the audiology community at large has accepted the findings as a strong nod that hearing aids can be effective in the prevention of hearing loss related dementia.
So what should you be doing to prevent hearing loss affecting your mental health?
First and foremost, as with most other conditions, the best defence you can have against mental health issues is keeping your body fit, exercised and well fed. A happy body holds a happy mind, and the earlier this is practiced, the better your chances of staying healthy for longer.
Next, protecting your hearing should be a priority. If you are regularly exposed to loud sounds then be sure to use the proper protection against them, have your ears cleaned properly by an audiologist and make sure that you get your regular hearing checkups.
Finally, should you already be suffering from noticeable hearing loss then you need to act now to counteract it. Nathan Gluck Hearing Care is an independent audiologist practising around North London. Ensuring that the patient gets the treatment they need when they need it is of the utmost importance to us, and so our practice is open every day of the week, and open late even on weekends to make booking an appointment as simple as possible. Our independent status means that we can source the best hearing aid technology to suit you, without being biased by brand or loyalty.
If you’re concerned about how your hearing could affect your mental health then book an appointment with us today by clicking here.