Did you know that our audiologists like to remind patients that hearing is 10% ear and 90% brain? Our ears work to help capture and funnel sound to the brain which ultimately translates it into speech and familiar sounds. Our brains help us recognize sound and gauge different listening situations. The brain identifies and helps us ignore competing sounds when we are focused on the conversation in front of us. Many studies today underline the importance of hearing health to cognitive health.

What does cognitive mean? The NIH describes cognitive function as the ability to think, learn, and remember and it is the basis for how we reason, judge, concentrate, plan, and organize. When hearing becomes more difficult and is left untreated, studies show that cognitive functions also start to suffer. Untreated hearing loss may also even speed-up natural age-related cognitive decline and may be a risk factor for dementia.

There are several theories on why untreated hearing loss leads to cognitive decline. First, as our hearing worsens the brain must work harder to understand sound possibly causing a shift in “brain resources” from other functions. Hearing loss also causes the brain to have to work differently to process sound, which could also cause problems with how other functions operate. Finally, people who have untreated hearing loss often become socially isolated. Being out with friends or family becomes too difficult when an individual can’t hear. Frustration builds from having to ask a loved one to repeat what is being said or to speak louder; ultimately the one with hearing loss may give up all together. Plus, when you can’t hear, you resist opportunities to try new activities or experiences and meet new people.

Unfortunately many of us delay seeking help for our hearing loss. In fact, on average, many people with hearing loss wait up to seven years before they get help. An appointment with a hearing care professional may be your first step to maintaining brain health and staying sharp as you age.