Why straining to hear could be draining your brain

Professor McAlpine, from the University College London Ear Institute, describes the experience of losing your hearing as being similar to visiting a foreign country where you speak only a little of the language.

You struggle to understand the conversations around you, and just trying to get by leaves you exhausted. This is exactly what happens to people who suffer hearing loss. As a result, they may start to withdraw from many of the activities they used to enjoy, because certain scenarios might tire them out, or might be embarrassing or difficult.

Recent studies by Dr Frank Lin, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, suggest that this could have a worrying knock-on effect. Evidence is beginning to emerge that hearing loss contributes to accelerated declines in the cognitive and physical functioning of older adults. Whether one is causing the other, or whether they’re simply associated, is not clear. But we do know that hearing loss leads to a greater cognitive load and if your brain has to make more of an effort to do one task, it will be compromised in others. If you are straining to hear, then the brain has less energy to listen and follow conversation.

Studies also show that being sociable and taking part in activities protects against dementia, possibly because it relieves stress, which is known to be harmful to the brain. So taking yourself out of daily interactions (because your hearing problems make them impossible) may increase the risk of memory loss and cognitive problems.

Not being able to hear properly could be a recipe for disaster. Whatever the link between hearing loss and dementia, there are two steps that you can take:

1. Be proactive. If you think your hearing is declining or if you are concerned about the hearing of a family member, ask your GP for a referral for a diagnostic hearing assessment.

2. Wear hearing aids. Hearing aids are an obvious first step in reducing listening effort.

When listening is easier, the likelihood increases you’ll want to attend social activities and you’ll stay engaged in the conversation.

A study by the National Council on Aging (1999) showed that when people began to use hearing aids they saw many improvements in their lives, including:

  • Improvements in family relationships (66%)
  • Improvements in mental health (36%)
  • Improved sense of independence (34%)
  • Improved social life (34%)
  • Improved sex life (8%)

There is no downside to investing time and effort into improving your hearing and communication. After all, communication is at the heart of connecting to others.

If you have any concerns about your hearing or the hearing of a family member, please contact Advanced Hearing WA at 08 9751 1899 to arrange an appointment.


Untreated Hearing Loss Linked to Depression, Social Isolation in Seniors, American
Academy of Audiology website: http://www.audiology.org/resources/documentlibrary/Pages/UntreatedHearingLoss.aspx.
Originally published in Audiology Today, Vol. 11:4, 1999.

How your hearing aid could stop you getting dementia. Interview with Professor David McAlpine
(Director of the University College London Ear Institute).

Dementia and hearing loss: methinks hearing aids are not enough. Blog by Sandra Vandenhoff
(Hearing Education and Rehabilitation for Adults).