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The Link Between Hearing Loss & Dementia

a hearing loss patient holding a hand to his right ear

If you have a diagnosis of hearing loss, the last thing you’ll want to consider is the possibility of dementia. However, many studies have been conducted that show a significant link between hearing loss and dementia. This link has been proven in several ways. If you are an adult over 65 years old, your risk of developing dementia doubles if you also have mild hearing loss. 

With moderate hearing loss, the risk of dementia is triple the normal rates. Finally, if you are someone with severe hearing loss, the risk of developing dementia is five times more likely than for someone with no hearing loss at all. If this isn’t enough evidence, it has also been shown that hearing loss acts as the highest of nine potential risk factors when it comes to dementia.

Luckily, discovering hearing loss early and addressing it by using hearing aids could help to lower the associated risk of dementia. Yet why is this the case? What is the link between hearing loss and dementia? The definitive true reason is still largely a mystery, though scientists continue to investigate the data. However, there are several theories which are currently being analyzed, and which could provide answers to this vital question.

A common cause

The first theory that links the two conditions of hearing loss and dementia is that they share a common cause. This essentially means that a single pathology or illness, is at play that underlies both conditions. For example, this theory would work if it could be proven that hearing loss is a significant symptom of a condition such as Alzheimer’s Disease. 

Or perhaps there is a different cause entirely. However, though this might seem like a neat and clean hypothesis, it isn’t backed up by a huge amount of evidence. There are not clear factors that would indicate a common cause, and so many scientists have sought other potential reasons.

Cognitive load due to dementia

This theory states that when a person is experiencing dementia, their brain is working especially hard to perceive and understand the world, sending many areas of the brain into overdrive. Of course, different people’s brains will react very differently to the stress of this condition. In some people, their brains will compensate by taking energy and resources from other areas of the brain; for example, the area that deals with your auditory perception. 

This can then lead to hearing loss as your brain is so caught up in the business of coping with dementia. Yet this theory also has its issues. The main one is that there is little evidence that proves dementia and cognitive load always occur prior to the occasion of hearing loss, so the cause-and-effect theory cannot be proved.

Cognitive load due to hearing loss

This theory works in the same way as the second hypothesis, except in reverse. In this theory, hearing loss can actively lead to symptoms of dementia. This is because the brain is diverting resources and energy as it tries to make sense of a world it suddenly cannot hear properly. 

This extra effort that is taken to listen to conversations and other occurrences takes energy away from being able to focus on other cognitive tasks. In turn, this puts a cognitive load on the brain and leaves it much more susceptible to developing dementia.

Social isolation and brain reorganization

Finally, it has been proposed that the social conditions often imposed by hearing loss are what causes the link between that and dementia. For example, many people with severe hearing loss can become socially isolated as they struggle to keep up with conversations and other social engagements. 

As this disengagement occurs, the brain, therefore, reduces the amount of energy it needs to expend on social interaction, reorganizing its resources to deal with this new reality. Eventually, this impacts the person’s ability to reengage and communicate in the same way, leading to a diagnosis of dementia.

There is no doubt that there is some sort of link between hearing loss and dementia. However, the exact cause and effect of that link are still unknown, though many theories have been floated. The good news is that finding and addressing hearing issues as early as possible may have the added benefit of reducing the risk of developing dementia later in life. 

This is certainly a brilliant reason to get a hearing test if you have any concerns. To find out more, and speak to a hearing professional, call The Speech & Hearing Center at 423-622-6900