Can Untreated Hearing Loss Lead to Dementia?


If you’re a Plano resident with hearing loss, there are bigger risks than the embarrassment of misunderstanding a word here and a phrase there. True, your date might look at you funny if you pass her a lime instead of the wine, but in the overall scheme of things this is pretty minor. Bigger problems are possible when hearing loss goes untreated, such as dementia. This is true even when your hearing loss small.

The Link Between Hearing Loss and Cognition

Person with Hearing Loss and Dementia in Plano

Hearing loss is the third most common physical condition in Plano and other communities throughout the U.S., ranking behind arthritis and heart disease. Because of its prevalence many consider hearing loss to be a nuisance and skip treating it but faking their way through the day can have dire consequences. A study conducted by Yune S. Lee, PhD, at The Ohio State University showed that even in patients who are young, minor hearing loss was associated with changes in blood flow and unusual activity in the brain’s frontal cortex. Eventually, this can lead to dementia later in life; Lee concludes that the risk for patients with mild hearing loss is twice as high as those in the general population.

There are multiple theories explaining the link between hearing loss and dementia. Several key factors include:

  • Cognitive Resource Overload. Individuals with hearing loss expend mental energy processing auditory information, diverting cognitive resources from other tasks such as memory and concentration.
  • Deterioration of Grey Matter. The auditory cortex, the region of the brain responsible for hearing, speech, and comprehension, shows diminished grey matter in patients with hearing loss. This accelerates brain shrinkage and leads to an inability to process sounds effectively.
  • Social Isolation. People with hearing loss often withdraw from social activities due to embarrassment (remember the lime/wine fiasco?) or fatigue. Straining to hear is hard work! Unfortunately, social isolation robs them of the stimulation required to keep the brain active. This starts a vicious “use-it-or-lose-it” cycle that may ultimately lead to cognitive decline.

Regardless of the exact reason for the link between hearing loss and dementia, the evidence is undeniable. More than one-third of dementia cases in adults over the age of 60 are associated with hearing loss, even after taking into account variables like sex, age, race, education, lifestyle factors and overall health. Hearing loss patients experience cognitive decline at a rate that is 30 to 40 percent faster than the general population.

Preventing Cognitive Decline

This may sound obvious, but the best way to prevent dementia associated with hearing loss is taking steps to prevent hearing loss in the first place. Short of stumbling upon the Fountain of Youth there’s not much you can do to halt the aging process, but noise exposure is the leading cause of hearing loss, and that is almost entirely preventable.

If you’re going to be participating in noisy activities – think concerts, sporting events, hunting, riding a motorcycle – wear earplugs. Turn down the volume when listening to music through headphones or earbuds, keep water out of your ears when swimming, wear a helmet when participating in contact sports, keep up to date on vaccinations, and avoid inserting objects into your ears. This includes Q-tips, safety pins, and fingers.

It’s also a good idea to make hearing evaluations a regular part of your medical routine. If you suspect you or a loved one might be experiencing hearing loss, make an appointment with your Plano audiologist today. Early intervention is the key to preventing dementia and other hearing-related problems.