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Hearing loss affects everyone differently, but hearing loss is usually categorized as mild, moderate, severe, or profound. Mild hearing loss is hard to notice, and many people aren’t aware of their mild hearing loss. Mild hearing loss can make it harder to follow conversations, or hear soft sounds. You might think people around you don’t speak as clearly as they used to, but you may not consider that you have hearing loss.
Did you know that even a mild hearing loss may cause cognitive declines in older adults? A recent study found that adults with mild hearing loss of around 15 decibels (dB) experienced changes in cognitive abilities.
Measuring Cognitive Decline
The term cognitive decline means that your brain isn’t functioning as well as it used to. For example, it may take you longer to solve a problem or complete a project. You might have trouble remembering how to do a task or make a mistake on a recipe you’ve made many times. You might also have a harder time forming new memories or recalling what someone has said. Changes in memory is one of the most noticeable signs of cognitive decline. In older adults, cognitive decline can increase the risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Recognizing Mild Hearing Loss
You probably won’t notice mild hearing loss right away. You might not notice that you’re missing some of the sounds around you, and you’re not consciously aware of the fact that you’ve been slowly turning up the volume on the TV. Your family may notice your mild hearing loss before you do, and they might draw your attention to your changing hearing. Some of the signs of mild hearing loss can include:
- Failing to hear someone call you from another room
- Not hearing soft sounds like the patter of rain or the hum of the fridge
- Failing to hear very soft or whispered conversation
- Having trouble localizing sounds or determining where sounds are coming from
- Struggling to hear conversations where there’s a lot of background noise
If you’ve noticed any of these signs of hearing loss, you may have brushed them off. After all, mild hearing loss doesn’t seem like such a big deal. However, even a mild hearing loss contributes to cognitive decline.
A Recent Study Links Mild Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline
A study from 2019, published in the JAMA Otolaryngology journal, looked at the connection between mild hearing loss and cognitive decline. There were over 6,400 study participants aged 50 or more. Each participant had a hearing test and several cognitive tests.
When researchers looked at the data and controlled for other variables, they found a link between cognitive abilities and hearing loss. Participants with moderate or severe hearing loss had high rates of cognitive decline. And even those with mild hearing loss of only 15 dB had lower test scores than older adults with normal hearing! This indicates that a mild hearing loss is affecting your brain in some serious ways.
Hearing Loss and Your Brain
Straining to hear is exhausting. “People with worse hearing use so much more brainpower to decode the words that are said, and they don’t get to process the meaning of what was said, which is the intellectually stimulating part,” said Dr. Justin Golub, the study’s lead author. Hearing loss puts a lot of strain on your brain, but it’s not the right kind of exercise. Even though you get exhausted straining to hear, your brain isn’t getting the stimulation it needs to stay healthy. You aren’t exercising your brain by following conversations, making connections, and building new memories. When your brain isn’t stimulated, you risk cognitive decline.
Treating Hearing Loss
It’s time to prioritize hearing health and brain health! Treating mild hearing loss isn’t just about your ears, it’s also about your brain. When you treat mild hearing loss and help your brain hear all the sounds around you, you will be getting the right exercise your brain needs to stay healthy.
Treating hearing loss makes it easier to follow conversations and connect with loved ones, and it will also slow the rate of cognitive decline. We recommend having a hearing test every one or two years, so you’ll find out as soon as you have a mild hearing loss.