Dementia and hearing loss are common problems in some people as they get older. However, while many believed earlier that it was just a coincidence that both conditions occurred together, the latest research now shows that the two are actually connected. In fact, even a slight loss of hearing when you are at a young age can cause certain changes to brain function and increase the risk of developing dementia. So if you are fond of blasting songs on your headphones, it is time to stop. Even a slight amount of hearing loss, something you may not even be aware of, could change brain function and lead to dementia at a later stage in life. Here’s everything you need to know about whether hearing loss is a symptom of dementia.
Is Hearing Loss a Symptom of Dementia?
You will be surprised to learn that there is actually a connection between even a small amount of hearing loss and the onset of dementia. A study carried out at The Ohio State University looked at how the brain reacts to both simple and complex sentences. The participants selected by the research team were between the ages of 18 and 41, and all of them were administered a hearing test. Upon testing all the participants’ hearing to collect data for the study, the researchers found that the participants who experienced even the smallest bit of hearing loss displayed unusual activity in their brain’s right frontal cortex. This was displayed on the functional MRI tests that the participants had to undergo. Functional MRI tests measure brain activity by looking for and detecting any changes in the blood flow to the brain.(1,2,3,4)
In young people who are in overall good health, the left side of the brain is responsible for processing language, while the right side of the brain typically gets to work around the age of 50 years. This is a wise built-in mechanism in the body keeping evolution in mind. The brain of a young person is optimized, which helps preserve the essential resources until the time you need them. Till that time, the right side of the brain remains in a more or less idle mode.(5,6)
It is important to note that when both sides of the brain start working much before time, it is not exactly a benefit. People with hearing loss put a lot of extra effort into listening. This causes a drain on the brain’s cognitive resources that would otherwise be used for functions like attention and memory. Due to this, one can develop cognitive issues later in life, and people with even mild hearing loss are nearly twice as likely to get diagnosed with dementia.(7)
How Does Loss of Hearing Affect the Brain?
There are many theories about how even a little bit of hearing loss and dementia are connected. This connection is believed to be due to how any information that you hear is transferred to and processed by the brain. Prolonged dysregulation of this connection is believed to cause dementia in the future. Even recent imaging studies on natural age-related hearing loss have shown how the brain starts to struggle with compensating when it is not getting the same level of auditory input as it was getting in the past. This is because when the peripheral hearing apparatus stops working properly, over a period of time, it reduces the input that is sent to the main hearing centers of the brain.
Over a period of time, loss of hearing can cause the weakening of these primary hearing centers in the brain. This, in turn, creates a never-ending cycle of worsening hearing capabilities, declining function of the primary hearing centers, and a higher risk of developing dementia.
In old age, many adults who experience hearing loss usually tend to withdraw themselves from others as the hearing loss starts to make it challenging for them to communicate. This means that they cut themselves off socially and begin to spend less and less time with their family and friends. Loneliness and such kind of social isolation has been known to cause many harmful physical and mental health outcomes, one of which is dementia.
However, research remains unclear about whether the use of hearing aids can help counteract or even reverse any kind of cognitive damage once the damage has been done. (8,9)
What Can You Do To Protect Your Hearing?
It is possible to do quite a lot actually to protect your hearing, especially for children, because in 60 percent of the cases, hearing loss is preventable.(10) According to experts, it is possible to avoid nearly 35 percent of all dementia cases if you protect your hearing. (11) Here are some things you can do to protect your hearing:
1. Check the Listening Volumes
Whenever you or your children are using any type of electronic device, it is best to keep the volume at the lowest level possible so that you are still able to listen and hear the words or lyrics. A general rule of thumb is that if you are able to listen to sounds from your children’s headphones or someone can hear the sounds from your headphones, the volume is too loud.
2. Look Out For Any Signs Of Infection
One of the most common causes of hearing loss in children is a middle ear infection. According to estimates by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, nearly 75 percent of children experience at least one bout of middle ear infection by the time they turn three.(12) When such ear infections tend to persist or recur, they increase the risk of causing damage to the ear bones, hearing nerve, or eardrum. This can cause permanent hearing loss. One of the most common signs of an ear infection is if your child is pulling or scratching at their ears, fatigue, irritability, complaining of ear pain, and lack of attention to what you are saying. Older kids who are experiencing hearing loss may not hear or misunderstand your words and also tend to listen to music or TV at a loud volume. If you suspect that your child has an ear infection, you should get it treated at the earliest.
3. Wear Earplugs At A Concert
If you or your children love attending live concerts, it is best to use earplugs at the venue. According to recommendations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, being exposed to noise levels above 100 decibels for over 15 minutes is not recommended. (13) Loud concerts, usually rock concerts, tend to have a noise level of 120 decibels, which can harm your hearing.
4. Keep Up To Date With Vaccinations
There are some vaccines that pediatricians recommend to prevent diseases like mumps, measles, and chickenpox, which have the risk of causing hearing loss.(14) It is important that you stay updated on your child’s vaccination schedule.
5. Stop Using Cotton Swabs or Q-tips
Many people use cotton swabs or Q-tips to clean their ears or a child’s ear. It is essential to be aware that if you jam the swab by mistake into the ear, you can accidentally injure and damage the eardrum. Many people don’t realize that you actually do not need to clean out the earwax. Your ears are self-cleaning, and if you feel there is an excessive amount of earwax in your child’s ear, you should first consult their pediatrician.
The latest research now suggests that there is a connection between hearing loss and dementia. In fact, some scientists even believe that hearing loss might even become a cause of dementia in some cases. While this is an emerging field of research, the data has nevertheless put the focus on how important it is to protect your hearing. By following some of the prevention tips discussed above, you can not only prevent hearing loss, but you may also potentially delay the onset of dementia. However, more research is still needed to prove this conclusively.
- Lee, Y.S., 2018. Impact of Subtle Hearing Loss on the Cognition of Young Adults. The Hearing Journal, 71(10), p.30.
- Griffiths, T.D., Lad, M., Kumar, S., Holmes, E., McMurray, B., Maguire, E.A., Billig, A.J. and Sedley, W., 2020. How can hearing loss cause dementia?. Neuron, 108(3), pp.401-412.
- Lin, F.R. and Albert, M., 2014. Hearing loss and dementia–who is listening?. Aging & mental health, 18(6), pp.671-673.
- Peracino, A., 2014. Hearing loss and dementia in the aging population. Audiology and Neurotology, 19(Suppl. 1), pp.6-9.
- Sperry, R.W., 1975. Left-brain, right-brain. Saturday Review, 2(23), pp.30-32.
- McManus, I.C., 2002. Right hand, left hand: The origins of asymmetry in brains, bodies, atoms, and cultures. Harvard University Press.
- Fortunato, S., Forli, F., Guglielmi, V., De Corso, E., Paludetti, G., Berrettini, S. and Fetoni, A.R., 2016. A review of new insights on the association between hearing loss and cognitive decline in ageing. Acta Otorhinolaryngologica Italica, 36(3), p.155.
- Livingston, G., Sommerlad, A., Orgeta, V., Costafreda, S.G., Huntley, J., Ames, D., Ballard, C., Banerjee, S., Burns, A., Cohen-Mansfield, J. and Cooper, C., 2017. Dementia prevention, intervention, and care. The Lancet, 390(10113), pp.2673-2734.
- Mahmoudi, E., Basu, T., Langa, K., McKee, M.M., Zazove, P., Alexander, N. and Kamdar, N., 2019. Can hearing aids delay time to diagnosis of dementia, depression, or falls in older adults?. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 67(11), pp.2362-2369.
- Deafness and hearing loss (no date) World Health Organization. World Health Organization. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/deafness-and-hearing-loss (Accessed: November 16, 2022).
- Livingston, G., Huntley, J., Sommerlad, A., Ames, D., Ballard, C., Banerjee, S., Brayne, C., Burns, A., Cohen-Mansfield, J., Cooper, C. and Costafreda, S.G., 2020. Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. The Lancet, 396(10248), pp.413-446.
- Causes of hearing loss in children (no date) American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Available at: https://www.asha.org/public/hearing/Causes-of-Hearing-Loss-in-Children/ (Accessed: November 16, 2022).
- Hearing protection for outdoor activities (2020) Amplifon. Available at: https://www.amplifonusa.com/hearing-loss/blog/hearing-protection-for-outdoor-activities (Accessed: November 16, 2022).
- Hall, R. and Richards, H., 1987. Hearing loss due to mumps. Archives of disease in childhood, 62(2), pp.189-191.
- Link Between Dementia and Your Bedtime
- 10 Types of Dementia
- Home Care For The Different Progressive Stages of Dementia