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Cognitive decline and hearing loss: What you need to know

Why early intervention is the best course of action, says Dr. Audra Branham, Audiologist
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The connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline is not a new one. It has been on the radar of researchers for years and has amplified since the early 2000s.

“Although there is still more research needed to improve our understanding of exactly how these two are connected, we do know that there have recently been 12 risk factors identified for dementia, with hearing loss among them,” says Dr. Audra Branham, Audiologist at Hearing Innovations.

“These risk factors, however, have been deemed modifiable, meaning you can take measures to change them, which can decrease your chances for cognitive decline and dementia. A 2020 study revealed that if all 12 modifiable risk factors were eliminated, approximately 40% of dementias could theoretically be prevented or delayed.”

Untreated hearing loss often shows structural and functional atrophy within the brain. This is a result of deprived auditory stimulation and an increase in the cognitive load—the work required to process environmental sounds, speech and music.

“It is also known to lead to social isolation and depression, which are two other modifiable risk factors. But we also know that when hearing loss is treated, the physical damage can be at least partially reversed,” says Dr. Branham.

There is a high prevalence of both hearing loss and cognitive decline in older age groups and they often co-exist. For this reason, it is important that your audiologist remain aware of the need to conduct cognitive screenings and to refer when appropriate, to ensure the best outcome for the patient.

“Having a great working relationship with our area physicians has always been a top priority in our practice to ensure collaboration when needed and that our patients are well taken care of,” says the audiologist.

What to do if you notice a decline in your hearing

Even if you notice a small decline in your hearing, have it evaluated by an audiologist. It is important to have your hearing evaluated sooner rather than later, even if it’s just to establish a baseline hearing test.

Many other health conditions are affected by hearing loss as well, and your audiologist will monitor changes over time. If it turns out that you are indeed a candidate for hearing aids, it’s important to start wearing them sooner rather than later to help keep the auditory system active and healthy. There are many options available today and it doesn’t hurt to at least obtain treatment information when relevant; when you are ready to take that step, you’ll know what is best for you.

What an audiologist will do

There are a number of short cognitive assessments that an audiologist can utilize during the hearing testing process and they only take a few minutes. These screening tools help identify patients who should seek medical referral—whether it’s to rule out any issues or to help diagnose and begin medical intervention for best outcomes.

These screening tools are not designed to take long, and they do not diagnose a patient alone.

“When we see patients who fail a cognitive screening, our next step is to refer them to their primary care physician for medical diagnosis and follow-up care. The most important part of this is that an audiologist conducts the screening when appropriate and refers out for medical care quickly to ensure best patient outcomes,” explains Dr. Branham.

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The good news

If proper treatment for hearing loss is sought, there is noticeable reversal of the physical damage in the brain that could cause cognitive decline. This is exciting news for patients, and it underlines the importance of diagnosis and treatment sooner rather than later.

An important caveat here: correlation does not mean causation. Although there is a correlation between hearing loss and cognitive decline in recent studies, it does not mean that hearing loss directly causes cognitive decline or dementia—simply that a connection has been made.

“More research is needed to understand the underlying pathophysiological mechanisms between the two,” says Dr. Branham, “and I look forward to continuing to monitor the research in this area.”

Hearing Innovations is celebrating 40 years in business and just received the 2021 Best of Youngstown Award for Audiology. To learn more, visit Hearing Innovations or call 330-726-8155.

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