Hearing loss is a degenerative condition that doesn’t just affect our ears; if left untreated, it can also have a significant impact on mental vitality. In this article, we explain how hearing loss can affect brain function and the importance of early intervention to help decrease the risk of cognitive decline in older adults. 

Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline 

Our ears do more than just detect sound; they help our brains understand things going on around us. When we hear something, our ears transmit auditory signals to the brain, which then interprets and makes sense of the sounds happening around us. This allows us to effortlessly understand things like the direction a sound came from, distinguish different sounds happening at the same time, interpret speech, and more. 

When hearing is compromised, this flow of information is disrupted, and the brain has to work harder to make sense of the things going on around you. This leaves fewer cognitive resources for other brain functions such as memory, problem-solving, or concentration. Scarier still, research shows that over time, this can contribute to changes in the brain, ultimately resulting in accelerated cognitive decline and conditions like dementia. 

Hearing Loss and Memory Loss

Senior woman and her adult daughter looking at photo album together on couch in living room

Our brains rely on regular stimulation to stay active and healthy. When hearing loss occurs, the auditory stimulation your brain is used to is greatly reduced. Just like a muscle that atrophies from lack of use, essential areas of our brain can start to deteriorate, affecting not only hearing but also our memory functions. 

A study performed by Johns Hopkins provides valuable insights into hearing loss and memory function. During the study, participants underwent yearly MRI brain scans over a period of 10 years. Researchers found that people with pre-existing hearing loss experienced an increased rate of brain atrophy, particularly in regions associated with memory (the temporal lobe).  

The temporal lobe is a vital region of the brain responsible for memory formation and memory retrieval. This study revealed that those with hearing loss were found to lose more than an additional cubic centimeter of brain tissue each year compared to individuals with normal hearing. 

Other scientific studies indicate that people with hearing loss have an increased vulnerability to social isolation and loneliness, which can also lead to a decline in functions like memory. When we spend less time around other people, our brains are naturally less stimulated, which research has proven to increase brain tissue shrinkage.  

Concentration 

The ability to concentrate on a task, whether it’s reading a book, working on a project, or following a conversation, relies on our brain’s ability to focus by filtering out irrelevant information. When hearing is compromised, our brain has to work harder to process and interpret the constant barrage of sounds. 

This auditory clutter can make it incredibly challenging to concentrate and is why many people with hearing loss report experiencing listening fatigue, or general mental exhaustion. This additional mental effort, or “listening effort,” diverts cognitive resources, which can severely affect your ability to maintain concentration throughout the day. 

Problem-Solving 

Untreated hearing loss can negatively impact problem-solving in multiple ways. Firstly, our critical thinking and problem-solving skills are closely linked to memory and concentration. A healthy brain effortlessly takes in sensory information, analyzes it, retrieves relevant data from memory, and then devises solutions to various challenges. However, when untreated hearing loss enters the picture, this process becomes significantly more difficult. 

Secondly, people with hearing loss often struggle to fully comprehend information and process it accurately. This can make it difficult to understand detailed verbal instructions, follow conversations, and grasp the nuances of complex everyday problems. 

Untreated hearing loss can also make it challenging to engage in discussions and collaborate with others to find solutions. Misunderstandings can easily occur, leading to confusion and frustration for both the individual with hearing loss and those around them. Inefficient communication makes it difficult to effectively brainstorm and exchange ideas, further hindering problem-solving efforts. 

Hearing Loss and Dementia

cropped view of senior husband sitting in living room with senior wife lovingly resting her hand on his shoulder, symbolizing struggles of dementia

Research shows a significant link between hearing loss and a higher risk of conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, according to a 2020 Lancet Commission report, hearing loss is one of the top risk factors for dementia and is responsible for 800,000 new cases of the condition each year.  

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine have also discovered that people with higher degrees of hearing loss have an increased risk of developing dementia:

Degree of Hearing Loss Risk of Dementia 
Mild Hearing Loss 2 times more likely  
Moderate Hearing Loss 3 times more likely  
Severe Hearing Loss 5 times more likely  

Much like the connection between hearing loss and memory loss, research indicates that brain tissue atrophy is one of the leading explanations linking hearing loss and dementia.  

A study conducted by the National Institute on Aging found that people with hearing loss have an increased risk for the loss of brain tissue in the temporal lobe. The temporal lobe is important because it’s responsible for cognitive functions like memory and is typically among the first areas of the brain to be affected by dementia. 

Another study conducted by Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg School of Public Health found that when older adults feel socially isolated, their risk of developing dementia goes up by 27%. What’s even more concerning is that research on the mental health effects of hearing loss suggests that hearing problems can lead to feelings of social isolation, thus increasing their risk of dementia even further. 

How Hearing Aids Reduce the Risk of Cognitive Decline 

Senior man holding BTE hearing aid in hand on foreground, close-up.

Early detection and intervention of hearing loss is clinically proven to improve quality of life and can even reduce the risk of cognitive decline in older adults. By restoring the ability to hear and comprehend sounds effectively, hearing aids alleviate the strain on the brain caused by hearing loss. 

When you can hear more clearly and effortlessly, your brain doesn’t have to work as hard to decipher sounds, filter out background noise, or follow conversations. This frees up those vital cognitive resources so they can be allocated to other essential brain functions. 

Furthermore, treating hearing loss with hearing aids can also help mitigate the risk of brain atrophy. Hearing aids enhance sound perception and restore the auditory stimulation our brains need to remain active and healthy. This, in turn, helps maintain cognitive vitality and reduces the risk of conditions like dementia.  

In fact, a 2023 study by researchers at John Hopskins found that the prevalence of dementia was reduced by 32% by addressing hearing loss with hearing aids. In cases where people have a higher risk for dementia, an NIH-funded research team found that over the course of three years, hearing aid users experienced a 50% reduction in the rate of cognitive decline.  

By reducing the strain on cognitive resources and preventing the deterioration of brain tissue, hearing aids offer an effective means to safeguard mental wellness and reduce the risk of cognitive regression. 

The Hearing Specialists at The Balance & Hearing Center Are Here to Help 

Untreated hearing loss can have a profound impact on brain function, and early intervention is crucial to prevent cognitive decline and reduce your risk of developing dementia. Regular hearing check-ups and screenings are essential to catch hearing issues early on. If you think you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of hearing loss, our dedicated team at The Balance & Hearing Center is here for you.  

We are proud to provide the highest level of care and the most advanced hearing loss treatment options available. Contact us today to schedule an appointment and take the first step towards protecting your hearing and your quality of life for years to come.