Do you have hearing loss? If so, do you sometimes find that it feels like work just to understand what the people around you are saying? This is a sensation that happens even to those wearing hearing aids, because for them to perform well you have to have them tuned and adjusted correctly, and then become accustomed to wearing them.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, it might not be just your hearing that is affected, but also cognitive abilities. In newly released studies, researchers have found that hearing loss significantly increases your chances of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia.

A 16-year research study of this link conducted by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine included 639 volunteers between the ages of 36 and 90. The data indicated that 58 study participants – 9% – had developed dementia and 37 – 6 percent of the total – had developed Alzheimer’s disease. On top of that, the more significant their degree of hearing loss, the greater was the likelihood of developing dementia; for every 10 decibels of hearing loss, the odds of dementia increased 20 percent.

A different study of 1,984 people, demonstrated similar results connecting hearing loss and dementia. In this second study, researchers also found degradation of cognitive functions among the hearing-impaired over the course of the data gathering. They showed loss of thinking capacity and memory 40% faster than those with normal hearing. An even more surprising conclusion in each of the two research studies was that the connection between dementia and hearing loss held true even if the individuals used hearing aids.

Several hypotheses have been suggested to explain this apparent connection between hearing loss and loss of cognitive ability. One of these explanations is related to the question that started this article, about having to work harder to hear; this has been called cognitive overload. Some think that if you are hearing-impaired, your brain exhausts itself just trying to hear that it has a diminished capacity to understand what is being said. The ensuing lack of comprehension may cause social isolation, a factor that has been shown in other research studies to cause dementia. A different line of thought, hypothesizes that hearing loss and dementia are not causally related to each other at all. Rather the theory suggests that they are each the consequence of a third player. This unknown disorder could be genetic, environmental or vascular in nature.

Although the person with hearing impairment probably finds these study results depressing, there is a bright side with useful lessons to be extracted from them.For those people who wear hearing aids, these results serve as a reminder to visit our hearing instrument specialists on a regular basis to keep the hearing aids properly fitted and tuned, so that we aren’t constantly straining to hear. The less effort expended in the mechanics of hearing, the more brain capacity available for comprehension. Also, if the 2 symptoms are linked, early detection of hearing loss might eventually lead to interventions that could avoid dementia.

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