Challenges with Hearing Speech in Noise – an Early Sign of Dementia?

Is it challenging for you to hear in environments with background noise? Do you find yourself asking others to repeat themselves when you’re in restaurants or at parties? These are signs of hearing loss, a chronic medical condition that impacts over 48 million people. Experiencing difficulties with hearing speech in settings with noise is a symptom of impaired hearing. Recent studies show that these symptoms can also increase the risk of experiencing cognitive decline and developing conditions like dementia. 


Dementia refers to a range of conditions that reduce cognitive capacities. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, a medical condition that is expected to grow significantly. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, dementia is expected to rapidly increase from 50 million people globally to 150 million by 2050. Because there are no cures for cognitive decline, extensive research focuses on identifying modifiable factors that can reduce one’s risk of developing dementia. Studies have identified hearing loss as one risk factor, highlighting that treating hearing loss can help protect brain health. 


Link Between Speech-in-Noise Hearing Loss & Dementia 

Numerous studies show a link between challenges with hearing speech-in-noise and dementia. Speech-in-noise hearing difficulties describes experiencing a tough time hearing speech while in settings that have background noise. This includes environments including restaurants, bars, parties, transformation hubs like airports etc. Speech-in-noise hearing challenges are an early sign of hearing loss. This can take a toll not only on hearing but overall health, including brain health. Research shows that hearing loss increases the risk of developing dementia. 


A significant study was published  in the Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association in 2021. Researchers at the University of Oxford investigated the link between speech-in-noise challenges and dementia. The study included 82,039 people (ages 60 and older) who did not have any cognitive impairments when the study began. Participants’ hearing was evaluated by a test where they had to identify numbers spoken to them while there were varying levels of background noise. Their speech-in-noise hearing was then categorized as normal, insufficient, or poor. During the 11 year period of the study, 1,285 people developed dementia. Researchers found that compared to those with normal speech-in-noise hearing: 

  • People with insufficient speech-in-noise hearing were 61% more likely to develop dementia
  • People with poor speech-in-noise hearing were 91% more likely to develop dementia.

These findings reveal a major correlation between speech-in-noise hearing loss and dementia. This study supports extensive research that identifies hearing loss as a risk factor for cognitive decline. 


Impact of Hearing Loss on Brain Health

You are likely wondering how exactly hearing loss impacts brain health. It is important to know that hearing loss doesn’t just happen in the ears but also the brain. There are specific areas of the brain that are responsible for processing auditory input. These portions of the brain can be impacted in a few ways by imapired hearing:

  • Brain atrophy: portions of the brain that manage speech and language comprehension become less active as they receive less auditory input due to hearing loss. This can cause these areas to shrink, change neural networks, and contribute to reduced cognitive functioning. 
  • Cognitive overload: other parts of the brain can try to compensate for hearing loss by intervening to make sense of what one is hearing. This overextends the brain which can result in cognitive overload. The brain being stretched beyond capacity can also contribute to cognitive decline. 
  • Social withdrawal: a common outcome of hearing loss is social withdrawal. Because conversations become challenging to engage in and follow, people often avoid them as much as possible. This involves skipping social events and spending less time with loved ones. Social withdrawal contributes to depressive symptoms and means less stimulation and activity for the brain, impacting cognitive functions. 

The best way to prevent the toll on brain health that impaired hearing can have is by treating hearing loss. 


Treating Hearing Loss Protects Health

Treating hearing loss offers numerous benefits that improve health. Hearing aids are the most common treatment. These electronic devices provide the ears and brain with ample hearing support. This alleviates symptoms and maximes one’s hearing capacity. Hearing aids strengthen communication with social life, improve relationships, and brain health. These devices support cognitive functions, decreasing the risk of experiencing cognitive decline. Contact us today to schedule an appointment for a hearing consultation.