For those of you who’ve suffered some form of hearing impairment, do you ever find yourself having to work very hard to understand what is being said to you or around you? This is a sensation that happens even to those wearing hearing aids, because in order for them to work well you have to have them fitted and tuned correctly, and then become accustomed to wearing them.

Regrettably, the fallout of this sensation may not be restricted to loss of hearing function; it may also be related to loss of cognitive abilities. Hearing impairment markedly increases your risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s according to the latest studies.

A 16-year research study of this link conducted by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine involved 639 people ages 36 to 90. At the end of the study, researchers found that 58 people (9 percent) had been diagnosed as suffering from dementia, and that 37 participants (5.8 percent) had developed Alzheimer’s disease. The level of hearing loss was positively correlated with the probability of developing either condition. For every 10 decibel additional hearing loss, the risk of developing dementia went up by 20%.

In a similar research study, surveying 1,984 participants, researchers observed a similar relationship between hearing loss and dementia, but they also found that the hearing-impaired suffered measurable decreases in their cognitive functions. In comparison to individuals with normal hearing, those with hearing impairment developed memory loss 40 percent faster. A crucial, but disconcerting, conclusion in both studies was that the negative cognitive effects were not lessen by using hearing aids. Researchers have offered several theories to explain the connection between hearing loss and loss of cognitive abilities. Scientists have coined the term cognitive overload in association with one particular theory. The theory is that among the hearing-impaired, the brain exhausts itself so much trying to hear that it can’t focus on the meaning of the speech that it is hearing. The resulting lack of comprehension can cause social isolation, a factor that has been demonstrated in other studies to cause dementia. A second theory is that neither dementia nor hearing loss is the cause of the other, but that both are caused by an unknown mechanism that could be genetic, vascular, or environmental.

Despite the fact that these study outcomes are a little depressing, there is hope to be found in them. For those of us who use hearing aids, these results serve as a reminder to visit our hearing specialists regularly to keep the hearing aids properly adjusted and tuned, so that we aren’t continually straining to hear. The less you strain to hear, the more cognitive capacity your brain has in reserve to comprehend what is said, and remember it. Also, if the 2 symptoms are connected, early detection of hearing loss might at some point lead to interventions that could avoid dementia.