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If you suffer from some form of hearing impairment, do you ever notice that listening to people speak is work, and that you have to try really hard to understand what people are saying? You are not the only one. The sensation that listening and understanding is tiring work is typical among people with hearing loss – even the ones that use hearing aids.

This frequent phenomenon may impact more than your hearing; it may also influence your memory and your cognitive abilities. Recent studies have revealed that there is a strong connection between hearing loss and your odds of contracting Alzheimer’s and dementia.

A 16-year research study of this relationship from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine involved 639 volunteers ages 36 to 90. The researchers found that at the end of the research project, 58 of the participants (9%) had developed dementia, and 37 (5.8%) had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The level of hearing loss was positively correlated with the odds of developing either disorder. For every ten decibel additional hearing loss, the risk of developing dementia increased 20 percent.

In a similar study, evaluating 1,984 participants, researchers observed a similar connection between dementia and hearing loss, but they also found that the hearing-impaired experienced noticeable decreases in their cognitive functions. The hearing-impaired participants developed reduced thinking capacity and memory loss 40 percent faster than individuals with normal hearing. A vital, but disconcerting, finding in each of the two research studies was that the negative cognitive effects were not lessen by using hearing aids. The connection between loss of hearing and loss of cognitive functions is an open area of inquiry, but scientists have proposed a few theories to explain the results seen thus far. Scientists have coined the term cognitive overload in conjunction with one specific theory. The theory is that among the hearing-impaired, the brain tires itself out so much working to hear that it can’t focus on the meaning of the sounds that it is hearing. Maintaining a two-way conversation requires understanding. An absence of understanding causes interactions to break down and might lead to social isolation. A different line of thought, hypothesizes that hearing loss and dementia are not causally related to each other at all. Rather the theory states that they are both the consequence of a third mechanism. This unknown mechanism could be vascular, environmental or genetic in nature.

Despite the fact that these study outcomes are a little depressing, there is hope to be found in them. If you wear hearing aids, see your audiologist on a regular basis to keep them fitted, adjusted, and programmed correctly, so that you are not straining to hear. The less work used in the mechanics of hearing, the more brain capacity available for comprehension. And, if it works out that loss of hearing is an early indicator of dementia, discovering the hearing loss early might allow for early intervention to delay the onset.