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The Link Between Hearing Aids and Cognitive Health

The Link Between Hearing Aids and Cognitive Health

As an audiologist, I have observed first-hand the profound impact hearing can have on everyday life. It's not just about the ability to hear sounds around us but rather the intricate process of decoding, understanding, and reacting to those sounds. Our ears capture the sounds, but our brain does the heavy lifting of interpreting them. This complex interplay between hearing and cognitive functions is a hot topic, and recent research has begun to shed light on the intricate connection between hearing and overall health. In this article, we delve into how hearing loss can affect how we perceive the world and our cognitive health and general well-being.

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How Hearing Supports Overall Health

Hearing plays a pivotal role in keeping us connected with others. It does not merely facilitate communication, but it is a critical element in nurturing relationships, whether at home, at work, or during social gatherings. Communication is more than an exchange of information. The laughter of a loved one, the subtle tones in a friend's voice, or the essential details during a work meeting - our ability to hear and understand these sounds forms the basis of our interactions. 

In addition to its social benefits, hearing is a critical sensory function that helps ensure our personal safety. It alerts us to potential environmental threats our other senses may not detect. For instance, the sound of an approaching vehicle when we're about to cross the road or the ringing bell of a bicycle about to pass us on a trail. These auditory cues allow us to react swiftly and appropriately, preventing potential accidents. Furthermore, the sound of someone's footsteps approaching from behind can alert us to their presence, allowing us to assess the situation. In these ways, our hearing acts as an early warning system, contributing significantly to our safety and well-being.

Beyond these practical aspects, hearing health plays a significant part in our emotional and social well-being. Feeling connected to people and the world around us brings joy, reduces feelings of isolation, and improves quality of life. Hence, it's crucial to acknowledge the importance of hearing health, not just for auditory experiences but for our cognitive, emotional, and social health.

Treating Hearing Loss Preserves Cognitive Function

We should all be aware of a compelling connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline. Imagine trying to piece together a conversation in a bustling cafe, straining to discern the words amongst the cacophony of background noise. The extra mental effort required to decode and interpret sounds can exhaust cognitive resources, leaving less capacity for other cognitive processes like memory and concentration. Over time, this may lead to increased cognitive decline. Hearing aids can help to reduce cognitive load. They allow sounds to be processed more easily and accurately, freeing cognitive resources for other essential functions. Thus, treating hearing loss can be vital in preserving cognitive function and overall mental well-being.

The ACHIEVE Study: Linking Hearing Loss Intervention and Cognitive Health

The Aging and Cognitive Health Evaluation in Elders (ACHIEVE) study is a pioneering piece of research that further underscores the link between hearing loss interventions and cognitive health. This study, one of the largest and most comprehensive, has indicated that addressing hearing loss can significantly mitigate cognitive decline and improve overall health.

Those with untreated hearing loss experience a cascade of adverse effects such as social isolation, depression, anxiety, and challenges in communication. These factors, while detrimental on their own, can also considerably impact cognitive health and function. Not addressing hearing loss indirectly enables an environment conducive to cognitive decline.

However, the ACHIEVE study has presented promising evidence that proactive interventions for hearing loss, such as hearing aids, can effectively reduce risk. By treating hearing loss, these interventions improve the individuals’ ability to communicate and interact socially and relieve the cognitive load caused by the constant struggle to decipher sounds. Consequently, cognitive resources can be allocated more efficiently, leading to better memory, concentration, and overall cognitive function.

Thus, addressing hearing loss isn't just about improving hearing—it's a potent, potentially modifiable risk factor for cognitive decline. By taking action against hearing loss, we can improve overall health and well-being and, most importantly, preserve cognitive health in our later years.

Early Intervention is Key

Early intervention is critical when it comes to hearing loss and cognitive health. The earlier we catch hearing loss, the better chance we have of intervening early and keeping the risks low. For example, studies have shown that people who begin wearing hearing aids during the early stages of hearing loss are less likely to have cognitive decline later in life. This reinforces the notion that early identification and intervention for hearing loss should be a priority in cognitive health.

Treating hearing loss with hearing aids can significantly impact cognitive function, specifically processing. 

When someone has untreated hearing loss, the brain must work harder to understand speech and other sounds. Over time, this extra effort can lead to cognitive fatigue and potentially contribute to cognitive decline. Treating hearing loss helps ease this cognitive burden and allows the brain to focus on other tasks.

Additionally, hearing aids offer other benefits beyond improved hearing and cognitive function. Wearing hearing aids can enhance social interaction and emotional well-being, which can both impact cognitive health. Social interaction is essential for keeping the brain active, and it has been shown to delay cognitive decline. Emotional well-being is also essential for cognitive health, as it has been linked to decreased risk of dementia.

Fortunately, the addition of self-fitting OTC hearing aids like the Sontro® Self-Fitting OTC Hearing Aids to the hearing market make treatment easier and more affordable than it has historically been. 

How to Get Started

If you think you are experiencing the first signs of hearing loss, getting started with a hearing test is the best initial step to take. There are online tests available that can give you a preliminary impression of your hearing status. However, these tests are not a replacement for a comprehensive hearing evaluation. Following up with a hearing healthcare professional is best if an online test suggests hearing loss. They can conduct a thorough examination and make recommendations based on your situation. The sooner you detect and address hearing loss, the better the outcomes for your overall cognitive and hearing health.

When you suspect hearing loss, the first step is to seek professional assistance. Schedule an appointment with a certified audiologist for a comprehensive evaluation. This assessment will determine the degree of hearing loss, its type, and the best course of action for treatment. An audiologist can also provide personalized advice on which hearing aid devices would be most suitable, considering various factors like lifestyle, budget, and the individual's specific hearing needs. Remember, early intervention holds the key to preserving your auditory abilities and cognitive health.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the interconnectivity between our hearing and overall cognitive health cannot be overstated. Good hearing health enhances more than the sounds you pick up with your ears. It also plays a fundamental role in fostering meaningful relationships, ensuring personal safety, and promoting cognitive functioning. Conversely, hearing loss can significantly strain our mental well-being, contributing to cognitive decline. Thus, early detection and intervention is critical. By addressing hearing loss, we can reduce cognitive load, promote better social interaction, and enhance our emotional and overall well-being. Remember, we are not just preserving our ability to hear, but we are also safeguarding our cognitive health and, in essence, our quality of life. Let's prioritize our hearing health, not just for the sake of sound but for the holistic well-being it offers.

 

Dr. Amy Sarow is a practicing clinical audiologist and serves as Audiology Lead for Soundly. Her expertise and experience span topics including tinnitus, cochlear implants, hearing aid technology, and hearing testing. She holds a doctoral degree in audiology from the University of Iowa. During her residency at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Sarow was inspired by the three-tiered, patient-centered approach, incorporating clinical work, teaching and research.

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash