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Cognitive Screenings and the Role of the Hearing Healthcare Provider

By Keith Darrow July 30, 2022 Health and Fitness

A healthy brain means a healthy you! You already know that your brain is your greatest asset – it helps you get through every day, make good decisions, and keeps you healthy. Having a healthy brain as you age is not something to be taken for granted, nor is it a guarantee.

Aging Is Inevitable, Decline Is Optional

Taking good care of your brain helps you remain an active part of your life, your family, your friends, your community and assures you the life you always wanted as you ‘grew up’. It also helps you avoid what you never wanted to deal with (and would never wish upon anybody): cognitive decline and dementia.

A regularly scheduled hearing exam is critically important to getting an assessment of your cognitive health and in early detection of developing problems. The most important key to preventing cognitive decline and dementia is having good hearing healthcare and following a few simple steps to self-care.

My hope in writing this article is that you will find it useful in making sure that your brain stays sharp and healthy… for life!

How Cognitive Screenings Play a Key Role in Detecting Early Cognitive Decline

A thorough examination of your hearing can reveal many things about you, including potential issues in other parts of your body. For example, a portion of an experienced hearing healthcare provider’s examination is devoted to risk assessment of decline, dementia, falls, and other medical conditions.

In the past decade plus, we have come to learn the intimate connections of hearing and cognitive function, and how decreases in hearing (which affects nearly ALL OF US as we age!) can dramatically increase the risk of other chronic medical conditions, hospitalizations, and even premature death. Ouch.

What You Hear Matters! 

Your brain is always on. Your ears are always on too. This means your brain is constantly stimulated by the vast neural network from your ears. Until it is not. Then what happens?

There is a general belief that activities which stimulate the mind, i.e., hearing, may help to slow cognitive decline. What starts out as subtle cognitive changes that are seemingly associated with aging, go on to affect an older adults’ day-to-day function.

As we age, there are certain expected cognitive declines that we will all experience. However, with increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia that may be the result of hearing loss, it is important to know the differences of ‘normal aging’, MCI (mild cognitive impairment) and dementia.

Early stages of significant cognitive decline (first seen in MCI) include problems with memory, language, thinking, judgement, and visual perception. Fortunately, most people are still ‘with it’ enough to notice these issues and can seek early intervention. Family and close friends may also notice a change. But these changes often aren’t severe enough to significantly interfere with daily life.

MCI along with hearing loss can increase your risk of later developing dementia caused by Alzheimer’s or other neurological conditions. But some people with mild cognitive impairment never get worse, and a few eventually get better. Which is why addressing risk factors early, such as the medical treatment of hearing loss, is critical to preventing dementia.

The Role of the Hearing Healthcare Provider

The detection and managing of cognitive issues, which may occur in tandem with hearing problems, allows your hearing healthcare provider to better address your needs in a timely manner.

I like to advocate for the cognitive screening of patients 50 years of age and older with hearing loss and/or listening difficulties – even in the absence of clear signs or symptoms of cognitive impairment.

It is my belief (and a proven fact!) that enhanced audiologic results, devotion to rehabilitative strategies (i.e., listening strategies and use of assistive listening devices and hearing aids), and improvement in your quality of life will result from a cognitive screening.

The goal of a reputable hearing healthcare provider in screening for cognitive decline is to find out if there is a possibility that you are at risk for dementia, which can ultimately impact your speech understanding and listening ability. Another goal is to detect if you have a mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

Notably, indicators of hearing loss frequently correspond with those of dementia. As hearing loss is known to heighten the risk of dementia, your hearing healthcare provider will always promote routine cognitive screening of adults 50 to 60 years of age and older.

A number of low-cost and easy cognitive screening tests are available. It is well-known that for many patients, a cognitive screening may be seen as an assault on their self-esteem. Hence, we always take into consideration the weariness, fear, and defensiveness of our patients.

Below are my best suggestions for fear of the unknown when thinking about having a cognitive screening done:

Recognize Your Fear

One of the most effective techniques in combating a problem in life is recognizing that you, in fact, have one. Overcoming fear of getting a cognitive screening is no different. Talk about your fears with a friend or family member or write them down so you can better understand them. Understanding them is key to overcoming them.

Find a Hearing Care Specialist You Are Comfortable with

Audiologists and hearing specialists are quite used to being ‘feared’, and good ones will do their best to make you feel comfortable and assure you. Do your research before booking an appointment – and focus on finding a provider who specializes in the medical treatment of hearing loss and cognitive screenings. Be sure to ask friends and family members, and use Google to read reviews.

Determine Gradual Ways to Reduce Your Fears

The right specialist will never force you into treatment that you are not comfortable with and will understand that creating a great experience is paramount to getting you to trust them. As you work with your hearing care provider, see if you can start slowly, and work your way up as needed and when you are ready. 

Bring Someone with You to Appointments

Having someone with you when you visit the hearing healthcare provider is mission critical! Not only does this provide an extra layer of security, but it can also help your family and friends understand your struggles, diagnosis, and treatment plan. The more ears to listen, the better!

The hearing healthcare provider’s first priority will be to address and validate your confusion, alleviate any anxiety, and explain in a user-friendly manner that cognitive and sensory processes are connected.

With a caring smile, he or she will answer your questions. (No question is a stupid one in audiology!) Our primary role is to assess, measure, and address your hearing and cognitive needs. Having a cognitive screening done helps us to better understand how your brain works with sound and make better recommendations for you concerning your listening difficulty.

Now go out and take care of your future!

Did you know that 4 in 10 of cases of Dementia are considered preventable? Are you worried that you, or a loved one, are not hearing and remembering as you used to? Are you aware that hearing healthcare clinicians are trained in cognitive screenings and that treating hearing loss may be the key to preventing mental decline?

Medical disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Please consult with your doctor to get specific medical advice for your situation.

Let's Have a Conversation!

The Author

Dr. Keith N. Darrow is the founder of Excellence In Audiology. He is a Neuroscientist, Clinical Audiologist and Certified Dementia Practitioner. Dr. Darrow is also a best-selling author, speaker and professor. He is passionate about helping adults prevent decline, actively age and reduce the risks associated with hearing loss. Dr. Darrow can be contacted at keith@excellenceinaudiology.org.

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