Living with untreated hearing loss may increase your risk of developing cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s. A study from the University of Oxford showed that people who had difficulty hearing spoken conversations amid background noise had a 91% increased risk of dementia.
How Hearing Loss Affects Brain Health
The hair cells in your inner ear send signals to the auditory cortex in your brain for interpretation. Your auditory cortex isn’t receiving the stimulation it needs to stay active if you’re living with untreated hearing loss.
Your brain is like a muscle; it needs exercise to stay in shape and function properly. Without stimulation, the nerve connections in your auditory cortex will begin to atrophy. That process decreases your overall brain function, increasing your risk for cognitive decline.
Confusing Hearing Loss with Cognitive Decline
While there seems to be a link between the two conditions, hearing loss presents symptoms that may be confused with cognitive decline.
Those symptoms include:
- Trouble understanding speech, particularly in noisy environments
- Difficulty following conversations
- Mental fatigue after conversations
- Withdrawing from social settings
Can Hearing Aids Prevent Dementia?
Your brain changes as you age. While hearing aids may not prevent cognitive decline, studies suggest they could slow its progression.
That’s because hearing devices provide your auditory cortex with the sound stimulation it needs to stay active. Wearing hearing aids also decreases cognitive load because your devices do more heavy lifting by amplifying and clarifying sounds before they get to your brain.
Consistent hearing aid use helps your brain relearn the sounds it’s been missing and gets your neurons firing. That can rebuild synapses in your brain, lowering your risk of cognitive decline.
How to Protect Your Brain
Aside from wearing your hearing aids daily, there are other steps you can take to promote brain health.
Train your brain: Learning new skills, participating in hobbies, indulging your creativity and reading are good ways to keep your brain active. Puzzles, crosswords, brain teasers and word searches activate different parts of your brain and encourage focus. Active listening is a good way to help your brain relearn sounds, especially if you’re a new hearing aid user. Sit in a quiet spot in your house and try to pinpoint the sources of background sounds like the clock ticking or the refrigerator humming.
Socialize: Engaging with other people is essential to maintaining your brain health. Socializing requires you to listen, observe and process different kinds of stimuli. It also lowers your risk of isolation, which can lead to depression and cognitive decline.
Feed your brain: Eating a balanced diet will give your mind the nutrients it needs to stay healthy. Berries provide powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties that are good for your ears and brain. Fish contains omega-3 fatty acids that support cognition and communication between neurons. Leafy greens like spinach, cabbage and broccoli have folic acid, which is good for circulation and reduces oxidative stress on brain cells.