The Effects of Hearing Loss on the Brain

Do you know that the brain has a vital role in our hearing? Our ears pick up sound, and these sound waves are converted into neural signals via the middle ear into the inner ear. These neural impulses travel to our brains, where they are registered as sounds we recognize.

The natural process of aging leads to presbycusis (age-related hearing loss) and exposure to high noise levels trigger noise-induced hearing loss (a type of sensorineural hearing loss). Both types of hearing loss affect these inner ear hair cells, the ones responsible for converting sound vibrations into neural signals. Such signals travel through neural pathways to the auditory core of our brain. The more recognized a sound is, the deeper the pathways are.

With hearing loss, these signals may be incomplete which can result in sounds that seem muffled or difficult to decipher. Since these incomplete signals are processed by our brains, our cognitive processes are required to work harder to put them together into something understandable.


A Connection between Hearing Loss & Cognitive Decline

Several studies have investigated the effect on our brains of untreated hearing loss. A study by Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston investigated the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline. The study examined cognitive impairment in 10,000 people over 8 years and found that the risk of deterioration increased when suffering from chronic hearing loss.

This study reveals that more advanced degrees of hearing loss resulted in a quicker progression of cognitive impairment. Study participants with mild to severe hearing loss had an increased cognitive impairment risk of 42-54 percent.

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How Hearing Loss Affects Cognition

We need to understand the essence of cognitive conditions like dementia to understand how hearing loss affects cognition. Cognitive conditions can cause problems with vision, memory, and thinking, which happens when the parts of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and decision making are affected.
Untreated hearing loss has three impacts on the brain:

Cognitive load
The brain needs to work even harder when you have hearing loss in order to properly process and perceive the sounds and interactions around you. It exhausts the areas of the brain which are used for other cognitive tasks like memory and decision-making.

Social isolation
Several reports show a direct correlation between loneliness and developing dementia. When you have hearing difficulties, it is difficult to engage in conversations or communicate socially with friends, family, and colleagues, which means you're more likely to avoid social events and interact with loved ones. This social withdrawal and solitude has been considered a risk factor for dementia.

Brain atrophy
When your hearing abilities are impaired, the ears no longer pick up as many sounds, meaning the auditory nerve sends fewer sound signals to your brain. Because there is less sound to process, the portion of the brain responsible for sound processing begins to shrink. If that happens, it won't regenerate again. This brain atrophy often means fewer cognitive resources are available when the patient enters the treatment for hearing.


Treating Hearing Loss Helps Your Cognitive Functions

Untreated hearing loss can have detrimental long-term consequences, but there is help at hand. The treatment of hearing loss with a pair of hearing aids promotes a more balanced cognitive function. Through more precise sound signals and better speech recognition, hearing aids make sure you are connected to life and the people you love.

A recent French study has shown that hearing aids can potentially significantly reduce the likelihood of cognitive impairment. Studies also found that people with hearing loss who used hearing aids had almost the same risk of developing dementia as regular hearing aids.

The research, led by Isabelle Mosnier of Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux in Paris, examined 94 people in at least one ear between the ages of 65 and 85, with profound deafness. Every person with hearing impairment was given a cochlear implant. More than 80 percent of those with the lowest cognitive scores demonstrated substantial progress one year after using the implant.

This study reveals the benefits of improved hearing. Treating hearing loss with hearing aids is one of the most potent ways to improve your cognitive function. Whether you or someone you love is suffering hearing loss, contact us today for a hearing test and a professional consultation on the right devices for your specific hearing needs.