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In the early stages of hearing loss people often mistakenly dismiss their hearing challenges as “no big deal” or “not bad enough to mind”. Unfortunately, ignoring hearing loss at its earliest stages means missing out on when hearing loss is most treatable. Worse, studies are finding that when left untreated, even mild hearing loss can contribute to significant cognitive problems, from simple performance tests to serious conditions like dementia.
Why Treating Hearing Loss Matters
Mild hearing loss may seem like an inconvenience rather than a problem, but it can and should be treated as soon as it is recognized. Hearing loss means that you are missing incoming audio information which makes it hard to understand speech, follow verbal conversations and hear important sounds in your environment. The missing pieces in your hearing place stress on your brain. You can compare it to trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with some of the pieces missing – even if you think you have an accurate view, you are never quite getting the full picture.
When your brain is dealing with untreated hearing loss, it struggles to piece together meaning with incomplete or unintelligible sounds. This means the mind requires extra time, focus and energy to do the same work as a brain with healthy hearing. Hearing with untreated hearing loss takes more mental resources and takes a longer time to deliver less accurate results. Additionally, the brain pulls its attention away from other cognitive jobs, like problem solving or coordination and balance. Overall, unaddressed hearing problems strain the brain consistently beyond its usual capacity.
Additionally, this constant stress even changes the structure of the brain over time. The standard pathways of the auditory system atrophy and new patterns form. This adjustment is one reason why the longer you wait to begin using hearing aids the more alien they will sound to your hearing: fundamental physical changes have taken place.
Hearing Loss and Cognitive Issues
The stress created by untreated hearing loss has significant ramifications. Cognitive strain that is exacerbated by hearing problems exists as a near-constant health factor and has well-documented ramifications for our cognitive performance. In compensating for hearing loss, our mental bandwidth is restricted, and energy is taken away from other cognitive tasks. Concentration is pulled away from even critical skills like balance and coordination, resulting in an increased risk of falling accidents for people with untreated hearing loss.
Other skills are dampened also. Our ability to accurately undertake feats of memory, problem solving, computation and other mental skills is often restricted by the brain’s primary focus on hearing. This accounts for a correlation between decreased ability to hear and decreased cognitive performance. This correlation applies even to cases of mild hearing loss (where 15 dB or fewer are missing from a person’s hearing spectrum), and is applicable regardless of age or sex.
Cognitive performance issues are at their most devastating in cases of dementia. Multiple studies have found that unaddressed hearing loss greatly increases an individual’s risk of developing dementia. Like general findings on cognitive performance, the greater the hearing loss, the greater the risk. While people with severe hearing loss carry 5 times greater risk of developing dementia than the general population, individuals with mild hearing loss still have twice the risk as their peers with healthy hearing.
Treating Hearing Loss
The ways in which hearing loss can change your cognitive health are a clear and pressing reason to treat hearing loss. Using hearing aids make speech comprehension much easier and helps relieve the cognitive strain of hearing loss. Use of hearing aids to treat hearing difficulties has also been shown to improve cognitive performance, even in populations of people living with dementia.
If you have mild hearing loss, it is a great time to begin treating it with hearing aids. Adapting to hearing aids early can prevent more extreme changes in the way you hear from occurring. By relieving the strain hearing loss places on the mind, there is the potential for hearing aids to curtail the negative cognitive effects that can occur when hearing loss is ignored or unaddressed. Are you ready to find the tools to help you hear better? Whether you have mild hearing loss or something more, treating it can improve your life and even how well you think!