Cognitive decline and hearing loss: what you need to know

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Why early intervention is the best course of action, explains audiologist Dr Audra Branham

The link between hearing loss and cognitive decline is not new. It has been on the radar of researchers for years and has grown since the early 2000s.

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

“These risk factors, however, have been found to be modifiable, which means you can take steps to modify them, which may lower your risk for cognitive decline and dementia. A 2020 study found that if all 12 modifiable risk factors were eliminated, around 40% of dementias could theoretically be prevented or delayed.

Untreated hearing loss often shows structural and functional atrophy in the brain. This is the result of private auditory stimulation and increased cognitive load – the work required to process environmental sounds, speech, and music.

“It’s 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 hearing loss and cognitive decline in older age groups and they often coexist. For this reason, it is important that your audiologist remains aware of the need for cognitive screenings and referrals where appropriate, in order to ensure the best outcome for the patient.

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

What to do if you notice your hearing loss

Even if you notice a slight decrease in your hearing, have it evaluated by an audiologist. It is important to have your hearing assessed as soon as possible, even if this is just to set up a basic hearing test.

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

What an audiologist will do

There are a number of short cognitive assessments that an audiologist can use during the hearing testing process and they only take a few minutes. These screening tools help identify patients who should see a doctor, whether that’s to rule out any problems or to help diagnose and begin medical intervention for best results.

These screening tools are not designed to last long and do not diagnose a single patient.

“When we see patients who fail 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 performs screening when appropriate and quickly refers to medical care to ensure the best patient outcomes, ”says Dr Branham.

The good news

If appropriate treatment for hearing loss is sought, there is a noticeable reversal of physical damage in the brain that could cause cognitive decline. This is exciting news for patients, and it underscores the importance of diagnosis and treatment as early as possible.

An important caveat here: Correlation does not mean causation. While there is a correlation between hearing loss and cognitive decline in recent studies, this does not mean that hearing loss directly causes cognitive decline or dementia, just that a link has been made.

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

Hearing Innovations celebrates 40 years in business and has 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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