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Untreated Hearing Loss: You Are Losing More Than Just Your Hearing

By Megan Myers-Auria, Au.D., CCC-A


Debra SwiftAging is inevitable, growing up is optional, and staying cognitively sharp is mandatory. At a certain age, people begin to become bombarded with mail and fliers for hearing exams and hearing devices. But why? Why is it so important for a person to keep their ears healthy? It is not so much keeping the ears and hearing healthy, as it is keeping the brain functioning. Many people do not realize the true link between our hearing and cognitive function.

Hearing loss is the third most common health condition occurring in adults 65 and older. Age-related hearing loss, also known as presbycusis, is a gradual hearing loss affecting both ears. This change can be so gradual overtime, that many people who have hearing loss are unaware. Some of the symptoms of hearing loss may be: speech sounds may be muffled or blurred, high pitched sounds are hard to distinguish, conversations may be difficult to understand - especially in the presence of any type of background noise. Because the typical hearing loss is mostly affecting the higher frequencies - men's voices are easier to understand, women and children’s voices are more difficult.

My patients are surprised when I go into detail about hearing with our brain and not our ears. They often crack a joke “so that’s what’s wrong with me?” or look at me so intently like they want to know more. Well, the truth is, our ability to hear comes from our ears, our ability to understand and process sounds comes from our brain.

Multiple studies have been and continue to be conducted showing a link between untreated hearing loss and cognitive decline (i.e. Dementia/Alzheimer’s). Our ears are responsible for collecting the sound, and our nerve of hearing sends the sound to our brain. The brain is responsible for processing the sound and interpreting the message. If damage occurs to the nerve of hearing, the sound is not fully processed and the message is not interpreted as intended. With hearing loss, as it worsens and remains untreated, the brain is deprived of normal auditory messages and forgets how to understand speech properly; much like when muscles atrophy when a person stops using them. A study conducted at Johns Hopkins Institute found that people with hearing loss are more likely to develop dementia and/or cognitive deficits than those who retain their hearing as they age. They also state that hearing loss can lead to dementia, and the isolation of people socially. Many researchers believe that auditory deprivation and social isolation with untreated hearing loss can put that individual more at risk for deterioration of the brain, leading to a lower cognitive function.

The relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline is quite interesting. Many studies suggest that people 65 and older with and untreated hearing loss (example - not wearing hearing aids/amplification when needed) are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and hearing loss can be associated with a faster rate of cognitive decline. Researchers have several theories as to why: one has to do with cognitive load. With untreated hearing loss, the brain gets overworked by constantly straining to understand speech and sound. An overworked brain doesn’t work efficiently. Another has to do with brain structure. Brain cells can shrink from lack of stimulation, including the parts of the brain that receive and process sound. That theory can be associated with “you don’t use it, you lose it”. The last theory is social isolation. When a person has trouble hearing conversations and socializing, they may prefer staying home instead. However, the more isolated a person becomes, the less stimuli their brain receives.

Sergei Kochkin has stated that “When hearing loss is left unaddressed, it can significantly compound the challenges that people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers already face; but in many cases, the appropriate use of hearing aids can benefit people with Alzheimer’s.” The Better Institute of Health (BHI) states that there is strong evidence that hearing impairment contributes to a progression in cognitive decline in adults. Untreated hearing loss can decrease the cognitive processing in spoken language and sound. BHI also states that research has shown that the use of hearing aids has helped reduce the symptoms of depression, passivity, negativism, disorientation, anxiety, social isolation, feelings of helplessness, loss of independence and general cognitive decline in people with known cognitive deficits.

As a Doctor of Audiology, I find that a patient's loved ones typically become frustrated by hearing loss long before the actual patient acknowledges that he or she is experiencing any loss. As we age, hearing loss gradually declines, which allows many adults to ignore their hearing loss for years. If you or a loved one are noticing a decrease in memory or cognitive ability, have your hearing checked. Schedule an appointment today with Swift Audiology for a comprehensive hearing evaluation to check for hearing loss; the outcome helps more than just your hearing.

Dr. Megan Myers-Auria is Doctor of Audiology at Swift Audiology. The practice provides hearing loss services, hearing protection, and medical hearing aid devices to patients throughout the Pittsburgh region. For more information, visit swiftaudiology.com or call (412) 274-7285.



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