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If you suffer from some form of hearing loss, do you ever find that listening to people talk is work, and that you need to try really hard to understand what people say? You are not alone. The sensation that listening and understanding is tiring work is common among individuals with hearing impairment – even those that use hearing aids.

Regrettably, the repercussions of this sensation may not be restricted to loss of hearing function; it may also be connected to loss of cognitive abilities. In recent studies, researchers have found that hearing loss substantially increases your chances of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s.

One of these research studies, from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, followed 639 individuals between the ages of 36 and 90, for a total of 16 years. At the end of the research, scientists found that 58 people (9 percent) had been diagnosed as suffering from dementia, and that 37 of them (5.8%) had developed Alzheimer’s disease. The level of hearing loss was positively correlated with the probability of developing either disorder. For every ten decibel further hearing loss, the risk of developing dementia went up by 20%.

A separate research study of 1,984 people, also 16 years in duration, showed comparable results linking dementia and hearing loss. In this second study, investigators also found decline of cognitive capabilities among the hearing-impaired over the course of the study. The hearing-impaired participants developed reduced thinking capacity and memory loss 40 percent faster than individuals with normal hearing. An even more startling conclusion in each of the two studies was that the connection between hearing loss and dementia held true even if the individuals used hearing aids.

The link between hearing loss and loss of cognitive functions is an open area of research, but scientists have offered a few hypotheses to explain the results observed to date. Scientists have coined the term cognitive overload in association with one particular hypothesis. Some believe that if you are hearing impaired, your brain tires itself out so much just trying to hear that it has a diminished capacity to understand what is being said. Maintaining a two-way conversation requires understanding. A lack of understanding causes interactions to break down and may result in social isolation. A second theory is that neither hearing loss nor dementia is the cause of the other, but that both are caused by an unknown mechanism that could be environmental, vascular or genetic.

Although these study results are a little depressing, there is hope to be found in them. If you use hearing aids, visit your audiologist on a regular basis to keep them fitted, adjusted, and programmed correctly, so that you’re not straining to hear. If you don’t have to work as hard to hear, you have greater cognitive power to comprehend what is being said, and remember it. Also, if the 2 symptoms are connected, early detection of hearing impairment might at some point lead to interventions that could avoid dementia.

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