Can hearing loss affect your brain health?

Hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic medical condition among older adults after arthritis and hypertension. Recently, there has been mounting evidence that hearing loss is associated with brain health.

According to one large-scale population study conducted by Johns Hopkins University over a 10-year time frame, researchers found a documented link between hearing loss and dementia. Several other studies have documented areas of brain atrophy associated with hearing loss.

Over the years, my conversations with patients regarding hearing loss have centered around the quality of life issues associated with hearing aids. Many become frustrated with the difficulties of settings with background noise or a large group of people. Some struggle to understand their spouse or grandchildren. There is a natural tendency to limit these environments or to simply “check out” of the conversation. Studies have demonstrated the tendency for isolation and even depression.

Recently, there has been mounting evidence that hearing loss is associated with brain health. Dr. Lin and his team at Johns Hopkins have published a couple of papers that have documented a link between hearing loss and dementia. In 2011, Lin reported on a 10 year study where individuals with mild, moderate and severe hearing loss had a 2,3 and 5-fold increased risk of dementia respectively!  Lin’s follow up study in 2013 revealed a 30-40% rate of accelerated cognitive decline in older adults with hearing loss!

Reinforcing these findings, several studies have documented areas of brain atrophy associated with hearing loss.   The saying “If you don’t use it, you lose it” now appears to be quite applicable in the realm of hearing loss.

Last year, the American Journal of Geriatrics published a study that countered those assumptions, finding that the rate of cognitive decline was the same for those fitted with hearing aids as those without. What’s not debatable is that upwards of 50 percent of adults over the age of 65 have some form of hearing impairment. I know what you’re saying to yourself. “Man, I shouldn’t have gone to so many rock concerts in the 1970s.”

Hearing loss is obviously not the only factor involved in cognitive decline and dementia. These previously mentioned findings do, however, shed light on a practical opportunity to potentially improve brain health and quality of life.

Paul A. Walker, MD, is a board certified Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist with Baptist ENT Specialists in Fleming Island.  He is a fellow of The American Academy of Otolaryngic Allergy.  His office offers innovative and comprehensive testing and treatment for allergies and chronic sinus disorders.  He specializes in minimally invasive office procedures, including balloon sinuplasty. Contact Dr. Walker’s office at 904.592.1068 or request an appointment.

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