We all want to maintain our mental sharpness as we get older. Dementia, Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline are conditions every single one of us hopes to avoid.
A growing body of research has shown that hearing loss plays a big role in our ability to stay mentally sharp as we age. In fact, a 2018 review of the research concluded that untreated hearing loss increased the risk of dementia by 50 percent1.
While researchers admit the science is still inconclusive on exactly why untreated hearing loss increases dementia risk, they do offer three probable reasons.
1. Hearing loss leads to social isolation
Untreated hearing loss has long been linked to increased social isolation and loneliness2, which studies have shown increases the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Think about it — if you struggle to hear, you’ll be more likely to withdraw from social activities or situations where hearing plays a big role.
2. Hearing loss shifts your cognitive load
As hearing becomes more difficult, your brain has to work harder to register and comprehend what you’re listening to. This steals energy needed for memory and thinking. Scientists refer to this as the “cognitive load theory.”
Imagine your brain as having a finite amount of fuel. As hearing loss increases, you use more “fuel” to listen to and make sense of what you’re hearing, meaning you have less fuel for tasks like memory and decision-making.
3. Hearing loss accelerates brain shrinkage
Finally, hearing loss is shown to accelerate brain atrophy or shrinkage.
Yes, believe it or not, our brains shrink as we age. But researchers at John’s Hopkins found that people with impaired hearing lost more brain tissue per year than peers with normal hearing3 — likely due to atrophy from lack of stimulation.
So, can treating hearing loss help keep us mentally sharp?
There is no current proof that hearing loss treatment can prevent cognitive decline, but two studies strongly suggest it may help.
One studied people over a 25-year period and found that those with self-reported hearing loss who did not wear hearing aids showed evidence of accelerated cognitive decline, while those with hearing loss who did wear hearing aids had no more cognitive decline than their normal-hearing peers4.
A recent study was even more interesting5. The study concluded that managing or treating hearing loss in mid-life is one of 12 things you can do to help prevent dementia. And — more importantly — hearing loss was the number one risk factor they recommended you could modify to “reduce the incidence of dementia or substantially delay its onset.”
In fact, researchers suggest that hearing loss treatment could prevent up to 9 percent of the 47 million dementia cases in the world6.
Wearing hearing aids is the most effective treatment for hearing loss
This link between hearing loss and cognitive decline should give everyone even more incentive to treat hearing loss and not ignore common hear loss signs.