Ageing Gracefully: Understanding the Cognitive and Physical Impact of Hearing Loss

November 3, 2023

By Albert Valino


As we get older, our bodies go through a multitude of changes, from greying hair to a slower metabolism. While many of these changes are often talked about openly (and sometimes dreaded), hearing loss is a topic that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. But why is that, especially when it’s such a common part of aging?

A Widespread Issue

First off, let’s look at the numbers. In Australia, about 3.6 million people have some level of hearing loss. More than 1.3 million people live with a hearing condition that could have been prevented. That’s quite a considerable chunk of the population!

Yet, despite these statistics, hearing loss is often overshadowed by other age-related concerns like arthritis or heart health. And the problem doesn’t just stop at 65. The prevalence of hearing loss only increases as we age, affecting nearly half of those over 75.

One reason hearing loss often takes a back seat in our healthcare priorities is its gradual onset. Unlike a sprained ankle or sudden onset of pain, hearing loss usually sneaks up on us. You might find yourself saying “What?” more often or gradually increasing the volume on your telly. Because these changes are subtle, it’s easy to ignore them or chalk them up as ‘just getting older.’

So why should you pay attention? Well, because dismissing hearing loss as an inevitable and unimportant part of ageing can have serious repercussions. As we’ll discuss later, untreated hearing loss affects much more than your ability to hear the TV or follow a conversation. It can impact your emotional well-being, cognitive health, and even physical safety.

Cognitive Impact of Hearing Loss as We Age

You might wonder, “How exactly does hearing—or the lack thereof—affect my brain?” Great question! When considering ageing and our cognitive health, most people think of memory lapses or getting easily distracted as standalone issues. However, compelling evidence suggests that untreated hearing loss can speed up cognitive decline. Let’s break down the why and how of it.

The Brain is a Muscle

Think of your brain like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it stays. Hearing might not seem like a workout for your brain, but it genuinely is. Every time you engage in a conversation, listen to music, or even hear the sounds of nature, different parts of your brain spring into action to process that information. But if you’re suffering from hearing loss, the brain gets fewer “workouts,” and like any unused muscle, it starts to lose its strength over time.

A study by Johns Hopkins University found that individuals with untreated hearing loss were more likely to develop cognitive impairments 3.2 times faster than those with healthy hearing. Another study indicated that moderate to severe hearing loss nearly triples the risk of developing dementia. That’s not just a coincidence; it’s a wake-up call.

The Domino Effect

So how does it work? Imagine listening to someone speak in a crowded café; it requires concentration, right? When you have untreated hearing loss, your brain has to work extra hard to fill in the gaps, which diverts resources from other cognitive functions like memory and focus. Over time, this “cognitive load” makes it increasingly difficult to keep up, leading to mental fatigue and decline.

What About Memory?

When your brain is constantly struggling to interpret sounds, memory takes a hit, too. You’re less likely to remember information when your cognitive resources are stretched thin trying to understand what you’re hearing. It’s like trying to take notes in a lecture when you can’t hear the professor clearly; the main points just don’t stick.

Why It’s Important

Now, this isn’t about scaring anyone. It’s about recognising that our cognitive health and our hearing health are intertwined. By addressing hearing loss head-on, we’re not just improving our ability to chat with mates or enjoy music; we’re taking a proactive step to keep our minds sharp and agile as we age.

Physical Health Implications

Firstly, let’s talk about balance. Our ability to stay upright and not take a tumble relies on a whole range of sensory input, including what we hear. So it’s not surprising that when our hearing isn’t up to scratch, our balance can be a bit wobbly, too. According to research, people with a hearing impairment are more likely to experience falls compared to those without hearing issues. And let’s face it, as we get older, falls become more than just embarrassing—they can lead to serious injuries.

The “Invisible” Hazard

Another concerning aspect of hearing loss is the potential for accidents. We often rely on auditory cues to keep us safe, whether it’s the beep of a reversing truck or a shouted warning from someone nearby. When those cues are muted or missing, the risk of an accident increases significantly. Imagine crossing the road and not hearing an approaching car or not noticing that your kettle’s whistle has been screaming for attention. These everyday situations suddenly become hazardous when our hearing is compromised.

More Than Just Ears

It’s not all about hearing and balance, though. Living with untreated hearing loss can also indirectly affect other aspects of our physical health. Straining to hear can lead to chronic stress, which in turn can exacerbate conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease. In short, the physical toll of hearing loss goes beyond the ears; it’s a whole-body issue.

A Stitch in Time

The old saying goes, “A stitch in time saves nine.” And in the case of untreated hearing loss, that stitch could be as simple as a hearing check-up. Taking care of your hearing now could spare you from many physical problems down the track, not to mention improving your quality of life in the here and now.

Your journey to better hearing is unique, and it deserves personalised care. Reach out to Freedom Hearing today, and let us help you reconnect with the sounds you love.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog is intended to be general, providing an overview of hearing loss and hearing aids. It should not be used as a substitute for professional advice. Everyone’s hearing needs are unique, and the best solution for you should be determined through consultation with a qualified hearing healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of an audiologist or other qualified health provider with any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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