In recent years, medical researchers have taken an in-depth look at the impact of hearing loss on the brain and have discovered that even a mild hearing loss impacts the brain in many ways. Perhaps most disturbing is that certain areas of the brain shrink faster in those with untreated hearing loss, and most shrinkage occurs in regions that are associated with processing sound and speech. This is one of the unintended consequences of starving the brain’s auditory system of stimulation.
Hearing loss hurts cognitive function in other ways, too, and has been independently associated with dementia and an increased risk of falling over.
- Although the brain naturally becomes smaller with age, research indicates that the brain shrinks at an accelerated rate of one additional cubic centimeter per year in those with at least a mild hearing loss (at least a 25-decibel hearing loss). Atrophy occurs in regions of the brain that play a role in memory and sensory integration, and that are involved in the early stages of mild dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Patients with dysfunction in the auditory processing areas of the brain have memory trouble, which is a precursor to Alzheimer’s. In environments where hearing is difficult, prior research shows that more brainpower is dedicated to sound processing, which affects other processes in the brain.
- Data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey shows that hearing loss is a significant factor in falling over. A mild hearing loss is associated with nearly three times the likelihood of falling. For every 10-decibel increase in hearing loss, there’s a 1.4-fold increase in the odds of falling.
- Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researchers found that individuals with hearing loss are up to five times more likely to develop dementia, based on the severity of their hearing loss. Those with a mild hearing loss are twice as likely; those with a moderate hearing loss are three times as likely; and those with a severe hearing loss are five times as likely.
- Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health discovered through cognitive testing that those with at least a mild hearing loss are 24% more likely to have a cognitive impairment than those with healthy hearing. Overall, those with a hearing loss face a 30% to 40% accelerated rate of cognitive decline.