You probably aren't aware of it, but you do much of your hearing with your brain. It's true. Your ears deliver sound to your brain, but your brain is the one making sense of it all. In fact, hearing loss--which essentially denies sound stimulation to the brain--is associated with brain atrophy and cognitive decline, like dementia and Alzheimer's. Knowing this, scientist set out to discover if using hearing aids could help offset this cognitive decline. The results are in and they are incredibly hopeful and positive for people with hearing loss who use hearing aids!
People with hearing loss experience loss of gray matter due to lack of sound stimulation to the brain. And though it would seem a "no brainer" that loss of gray matter would cause cognitive decline, this gray matter loss, in and of itself, isn't thought to directly cause cognitive decline. You see, the loss of gray matter happens in those areas designated as the hearing part of the brain, not the upper level thinking parts. And this is bad, but doesn't cause cognition problems until your brain, in an attempt to make up for this inability to hear, begins to compensate. According to an article on Science Daily, "Centers of the brain that are typically used for higher-level decision-making are then activated in just hearing sounds." Theoretically, this brain reorganization is what leads to cognitive decline.
To recap, in addition to needing sound to stimulate and keep parts of the hearing brain from dying, lack of sound may also cause the brain to compensate in a process sometimes called brain reorganization. So how does brain reorganization work and why does it lead to cognitive decline?
In brain reorganization, the brain's higher function abilities are diverted in order to make up for a loss of hearing. This reorganization is a way for your brain to use these functions to do something valuable, keep an awareness of your environment. It's something that we do naturally, and if you think about how important hearing must've been to our ancestors, this reorganization makes sense. If you can't hear danger or have an awareness of your environment, you're not going to be very safe. Sadly, if this theory holds true, the kind of cognitive function that is very important in modern society, suffers through this compensation or reorganization.
In one study, people with untreated hearing loss were shown to be 24% more likely to have cognitive decline when measured over the same time period against those without hearing loss. The good news is that a new study suggest this decline can be halted by the use of hearing aids. In this study, almost 4000 people were followed for over 25 years. Remarkably those people who used hearing aids to compensate for their hearing loss were no more likely to suffer cognitive decline than a person with no hearing loss. That deserves repeating, people with hearing loss who use hearing aids were no more likely to suffer cognitive decline than someone without hearing loss. Wow. Importantly, those in the study who had hearing loss and didn't use hearing aids were shown to have significant decline in cognitive function.
This significant research indicates that medical intervention for hearing loss needs to be part of a healthy lifestyle and aggressively pursued by individuals to preserve cognitive function. If you'd like to learn more about using hearing aids to compensate for your hearing loss speak with your hearing health provider. If you need help finding a hearing health provider click HERE to be connected with the largest network of trusted hearing health professionals in the nation!