To a certain extent, cognitive decline is a normal part of the aging process. As you age, your brain is slower to learn. You forget details more often. And the way that you concentrate changes. Depending on the health of your brain, this decline can be rapid or gradual. Keeping engaged, interacting with others and learning new things can all help. But there’s also growing evidence that a decline in hearing can lead to a decline in cognitive ability.
The connection between hearing and mental health may not feel obvious–at least, at first. But researchers have been able to point to strong associations between untreated hearing loss and increased cognitive decline.
How Hearing Loss Affects Your Brain
While all of the cause and effect relationships are not perfectly understood, scientists have been able to make several logical hypotheses about how your hearing health might have a significant influence on your mental well-being.
- Shrinking brain cells: Certain areas of your brain are devoted to accomplishing specific tasks. One area of your brain, for example, is devoted to interpreting and processing sounds coming from your ears. When those sounds cease due to hearing loss, that area of your brain falls into disuse. Over time, this lack of stimulation can cause a kind of atrophy in the form of shrinking brain cells. This atrophy, eventually, can contribute to cognitive decline.
- Social isolation: If you have untreated hearing loss, you may be suffering from a kind of social isolation. When you can’t hear, communication can become incredibly challenging. To avoid feeling taxed and frustrated, you might stay in more often. You may avoid friends and family. This social isolation can lead to depression and other forms of cognitive stress.
- Long term cognitive strain: The other possible cause that researchers commonly point to is a kind of cognitive strain. When your hearing loss grows noticeable, your brain becomes aware of missing stimuli. So your ears begin straining to hear, using cognitive resources to try to compensate for your loss of hearing. This constant strain on your brain can be exhausting. If it goes on long enough, long term cognitive decline can result.
Due to the well-documented long-term effects that hearing loss can have on the brain, many health experts now consider hearing health to be a significant factor in your overall and long-term holistic health outlook. To most health experts, hearing health is vital to your mental health.
Solutions to Improve Brain Health
Hearing loss can develop for a wide variety of reasons, although the most common causes are usually related to age and noise damage. In most cases, hearing loss is treated with a pair of hearing aids. A properly calibrated pair of hearing aids can:
- Provide stimulation to the hearing centers of your brain. This can help prevent affected areas from declining.
- Make it easier for you to maintain relationships with friends and family.
- Improve your performance at work.
- Decrease fatigue caused by straining to hear.
- Provide an effective way to monitor several health-related issues, including your hearing.
One study found that people with hearing loss who did not wear hearing aids developed dementia at faster rates. Whereas people with hearing loss who did wear hearing aids developed dementia at approximately the same rate as the general population. So if your hearing specialist suggests you use a hearing aid, it is vital to follow those recommendations.
Take Hearing Loss–and its Treatments–Seriously
It can sometimes feel easy to frame hearing loss as a normal and natural part of the aging process. And, to a certain degree, that’s precisely what it can be. But your hearing health is also an important component of your overall wellness.
It’s important, then, to take your hearing loss seriously. The health of your brain may depend on getting the right treatment for your ears. The sooner you find the right pair of hearing aids, the better for your overall health and quality of life.