June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month and Beltone has partnered with BrainWorks’ Medical Lead, Sigurd Brandt, MD, to spotlight the crucial relationship between hearing and brain health.
A key component of healthy aging that’s actively being investigated and thought to possibly have a profound influence on how well we age is the connection between hearing and cognitive health.
What we’re learning is that the impact of hearing loss is more than the absence of your ability to hear. Hearing loss comes with several other implications, making the treatment of hearing loss increasingly important to address. Our ability to hear links us to our social, emotional, and cognitive universes. Said in another way, hearing connects us to the world around us, lets us interact with it and keeps us active as individuals both physically and mentally. But what happens when we start to experience hearing loss as we grow older? Can our cognitive health be impacted by our hearing ability?
The way our brain works is very complex. We know certain areas of the brain are tied to certain tasks and that different areas work together for us to function properly. When we listen, an area related to listening helps process the auditory input, but it also works together with a cognitive area to understand what is being said. Thus, our brain and ears collaborate to interpret the sounds that surround us. What is hypothesized to happen when age-related hearing loss occurs is that the brain receives less sound input leading to the areas involved with sound getting less input and just like a muscle become less effective when not exercised. Further, when hearing starts to deteriorate, our brains must compensate by working harder to process these auditory inputs, which could, over time, strain other cognitive functions¹. In the same way we get tired when we perform physical activities over time, our brain gets tired when it’s used excessively over time.
The number of resources we use in our brain when performing activities is called the brain’s cognitive load. When performing strenuous activities, your cognitive load increases. When you relax, your cognitive load decreases. In relation to hearing, the cognitive load is thought to increase when you have to concentrate harder to understand the conversation around you, which over time puts stress on your brain. The way our brain accommodates the stress is thought to be through using other areas of our brain to help, areas such as our memory, which are then being used for listening instead of its original function of remembering. Over time the hypothesis is that this increased effort could contribute to the development of dementia. There is evidence arising, however, that can guide us on how to reduce the strain.
A study in The Lancet Public Health² indicates that individuals who experienced hearing loss, but who were using hearing aids, had a similar risk of dementia compared to participants with normal hearing whereas individuals with hearing loss who weren’t using a hearing aid presented with an increased risk attributed to their hearing loss. This suggests that by getting hearing aids to address hearing loss, we could be reducing the stress on our brain and maintaining our brain's cognitive functions. While we need to know more to be certain, we consider it a big added benefit to how a hearing aid already helps us hear better that it might also be protecting our brain.
In addition to your hearing health, it has been found that there are several other things related to lifestyle that you can do to increase your chances of good brain health for many years to come³. Following the value of addressing your hearing health, aspects such as social engagement, frequent exercise, varied diet and no smoking were highlighted. While potentially difficult to implement all, each of them represents a place where you can start to make an impact if you want to.
In observance of Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month, I urge you to view your hearing health as a vital aspect of your overall wellness and your journey towards healthy aging. It's about more than just adding years to our lives; it's about enhancing the quality of those years. At Beltone, we're committed to supporting your hearing health and, by extension, potentially enriching your cognitive well-being, and helping you to age well.
Let this month be about more than just awareness. Let it be about taking action, practicing self-care, and welcoming our golden years with health, joy, and sound. Celebrate life, celebrate the journey of aging, and begin your wellness journey by scheduling a free hearing screening at your local Beltone Hearing Care Center at Beltone.com. Here's to the rest of your June being filled with proactive health choices and the joy of life's beautiful sounds!
About the Author
Sigurd Brandt, MD, is a Medical Lead in Health Tech Innovation, GN BrainWorks, with a focus on brain health. Throughout his career as a medical doctor, Dr. Brandt has been guided by his passion of the medical potential of health tech and the medical research space to enable a shift in health care towards a preventative focus by enabling prevention and early detection. GN BrainWorks + Beltone, the nation’s leading hearing care provider, have partnered to provide educational resources around the correlation between hearing loss and cognitive health.
1. Powell D.S., et al. Hearing Loss and Cognition: What we know and where we need to go. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 2022.
2. Cheng, Y., et al. Hearing aid use and risk of dementia in people with hearing loss: a UK Biobank cohort study. The Lancet Public Health, 2023.
3. Livingston G, et al. Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. The Lancet, 2020.