Although they seem to be separate experiences, hearing loss has been connected with dementia in surprising ways. Both conditions occur most commonly later in life, so it is difficult to determine a causal relationship. In other words, it’s hard to say if hearing loss causes dementia. Yet, the two are correlated in striking ways.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University, including Dr. Frank Lin, have determined that hearing loss is associated with a higher prevalence of dementia. Furthermore, those who develop both dementia and hearing loss tend to have a more rapid decline in their cognitive functioning. In order to understand this relationship, the nature of dementia, cognition, and language may be a clue to the connection between them.
Dementia is a cognitive dysfunction that takes many forms. Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most well known forms of dementia, but there are many others, as well. A key feature of dementia is the breakdown of relationships between words and their meanings, as well as memory and spatial understanding. In the first case, many people suffering from dementia find that they cannot connect words with their meanings in the way they used to be able to do. For instance, when they want to describe something, they may not be able to remember the word for it. When that word can’t be located in the memory, they may put together other explanations to get at the meaning of the word. Yet, this process can be a struggle when words don’t have an easy synonym to use for explanation. Others suffer dementia in the opposite direction. Rather than forgetting the words for their ideas, they can no longer remember what certain words mean. This lapse of memory can even extend to forgetting the people they once knew or the locations of things.
Hearing Loss & Speech Recognition
One possibility for the relationship between hearing loss and dementia has to do with conversation and speech. When a person loses hearing, words or pieces of words may be unheard in conversations. Imagine listening to a person deliver a sentence but only being able to hear one piece of each word. These syllables or phonemes generally link together into meaningful words or sentences. Yet, for the person with hearing loss, they suddenly become a jumble of meaningless sounds. The mind must scramble to put together these sounds, the tone of voice, the image of reading lips, and the expressions on faces into a guess at the meaning that is intended.
That process of piecing together a puzzle can be overwhelming to the mind, overloading it with meaningless information or fragments that do not seem to fit together. When the brain encounters such a puzzle time and again, it could create a heavier cognitive load for the brain. This relation between hearing loss and the struggling brain may be a hint at the correlation between hearing loss and dementia, as well.
More research is necessary on this connection between hearing loss and dementia, but the fact remains that dementia is closely correlated with hearing loss. Perhaps the struggle in the mind to put together random sounds into meaningful wholes increases the cognitive load on the person with hearing loss to such a degree that dementia is triggered in the mind, or, when dementia has already begun to set in, that makes the cognitive decline more rapid.
Hearing Loss & Social Isolation
With untreated hearing and difficulties with speech recognition, there is a higher likelihood for people to avoid the activities they once loved. Rather than struggle through conversation over dinner with friends, people may be more likely to avoid the situation altogether. Over time, increased social isolation could be harmful. In fact, social isolation is a leading risk factor for dementia.
Treating Hearing Loss with Hart Hearing & Balance
Although it remains to be tested in a scientific study, the use of hearing aids may be a way to break the link between dementia and hearing loss. If it can be caught early enough, treating hearing loss with the use of hearing aids may be able to alleviate the struggling mind that grasps to understand what it hears.
Are you concerned with your hearing abilities? The first step toward better hearing – and indeed, cognitive function – is to schedule a hearing test. Contact us at Hart Hearing & Balance to schedule a hearing test and consultation.