Many people assume that if someone lives with untreated hearing loss, there is only one repercussion: that person’s partial or total inability to hear will persist. Unfortunately, there are many consequences of untreated hearing loss. When left unaddressed, hearing loss can have a significant impact on the brain, lead to social disengagement, and cause serious health issues. In fact, there’s even a strong link between hearing loss and dementia. So why wait? Your hearing health affects your entire well-being, and it is far too important to disregard.
Consequences of Untreated Hearing Loss
Lower signal quality leads to higher cognitive load.
“How does the brain adapt to hearing loss, and what are the resulting implications?” A study conducted at the University of Colorado’s Department of Speech Language and Hearing Science strove to answer these two questions by looking at neuroplasticity, or “how the brain reorganizes itself by forming new neuron connections throughout life” (source).
What did the researchers find? Hearing loss impairs the quality of the signals perceived by the brain for processing. When a person suffers from hearing loss, parts of the brain dedicated to other senses (like vision and touch) take over the part of the brain that typically processes hearing. Known as cross-modal cortical reorganization, this rewiring process can lead to cognitive decline because it increases the brain’s cognitive load. The change negatively impacts a person’s ability to understand speech and weakens the brain. Areas of the brain devoted to higher-level thinking step in, attempting to correct the deficiency. Preoccupied with assisting the brain with its hearing function, they abandon their typical responsibilities, which can cause severe cognitive issues. For example, a significant correlation exists between hearing loss and dementia, and this can happen even in the early stages of hearing loss (source).
Hearing loss changes the structure of the brain.
Over time, hearing loss can change the structure of the brain if left untreated. A study conducted at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that people with hearing loss experienced accelerated rates of brain atrophy (source). The research revealed that some regions of the brain, most notably the regions devoted to processing sound and speech, shrunk significantly during the studied period of time. Much like a muscle will shrink and weaken if left unused, the region of the brain responsible for sound and speech processing will atrophy if hearing loss is not addressed. According to a 25-year study, people with hearing loss who do use hearing aids and stay socially active experience cognitive decline at the same rate as people who don’t have hearing loss (source).
It can change behavior and lead to social disengagement.
The consequences of untreated hearing loss are not just physical; they can also pervade your social life and emotional well-being. As your ability to hear fades away, you might find yourself straining to hear conversations. Not only is this challenging, frustrating, and stressful, but you might also fail to catch important information. This problem cannot be solved through amplification alone, as a hearing loss also affects the brain’s noise-processing ability. Some people who suffer from hearing loss withdraw from social activities, and this sense of disengagement can cause depression and anxiety.
Did you know that, on average, current hearing aid users waited ten years before seeking help for their hearing loss? (source) Not only do these people experience years of inadequate hearing due to their procrastination, but they may also encounter difficulty communicating, a sense of isolation, and increased health risks. People who use hearing aids, on the other hand, may find that their mood improves and their social interaction increases due to their restored ability to communicate with others (source).
Hearing loss can lead to other health issues.
Because hearing loss is associated with an increased rate of cognitive decline, it should come as no surprise that research has revealed that people with hearing loss are more likely to develop dementia (source). In addition to the link between hearing loss and dementia, an oft-cited survey commissioned by the National Council on Aging found that adults with untreated hearing loss and their significant others experienced significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other psychosocial disorders (source). If someone with hearing loss fails to seek medical care, they may develop one of the following health issues:
- Balance issues
- Reduced ability to process and recognize speech
Other consequences of untreated hearing loss include strained relationships and decreased job performance, which can lower a person’s earning potential and career prospects. It can also threaten a person’s ability to live independently.
The Correlation Between Hearing Loss and Dementia
Midlife hearing loss is the single greatest risk factor for dementia (source). Researchers can’t explain exactly why people who suffer from hearing loss are so prone to cognitive decline, but they have a few theories. First, as we mentioned above, hearing loss often leads to social isolation, which is another risk factor for dementia. When people avoid cognitively stimulating environments due to their hearing loss, dementia may result. Second, when a person suffers from hearing loss, their brain must work harder to decode sounds, so they may have a difficult time remembering what they heard. Finally, as we mentioned above, hearing loss may produce long-term changes within the brain.
Although the link between hearing loss and dementia is concerning, it’s not hopeless. The one thing that you can do to lower your risk of developing dementia is to address hearing loss without delay.
Are you one of the 35 million Americans suffering from hearing loss? Don’t wait to seek help. Early intervention is crucial to protecting cognitive function. And even if you don’t believe you suffer from hearing loss, if you’re over the age of 50, it is important that you schedule an annual screening to assess your hearing health.
To prevent the many serious consequences of untreated hearing loss, contact an audiologist today. If you live in Colorado or Arizona, we can lend a helping hand. At our seven locations (six in Colorado and one in Scottsdale, AZ), we provide hearing tests, hearing aids, hearing protection, and more. To learn more, please browse our website, visit our Youtube channel, or give us a call at 720-259-9962. You can also schedule an appointment online to meet with one of our audiologists.
Remember, the good news is that treating any hearing loss early on may help reverse or slow down cognitive decline. At a minimum, your quality of life will improve. And if wearing modern hearing devices prevents or delays dementia, all the better!