The connection between dementia and hearing

Our ability to hear is complex. Its not only our ability to detect simple sounds rather it also gives us an understanding of sounds that change quickly, and which are layered with other sounds – such as a conversation in a crowded place. Our hearing or ‘auditory cognition’ relies on the outer, middle and inner components of our ears connecting with the auditory, language and other networks in our brains. Put simply, our ears need to send information to our brains for us to actually 'hear' and understand what we’ve heard. Without our ears and brain working together to receive, transmit and then process the sounds around us, we will have difficulty with our hearing. The healthy auditory brain image below shows areas involved in hearing. Green indicates processing centres in the brainstem that receive information from our ears; yellow indicates auditory cognition centres at higher levels of the brain and red indicates general high level cognitive processes in the brain.

Midlife hearing loss has been identified as one of 12 lifestyle risk factors for dementia later in life. However, research in the Lancet reports that this risk can be reduced if the hearing loss is identified and managed well. As we age, our hearing systems also are vulnerable to the cumulative effects of life experiences, particularly working in a noisy environment. Any acquired hearing loss can affect a person’s social engagement and quality of life. Limited social engagement, in turn, may affect general cognitive ability and increase vulnerability to social isolation and depression. Such negative outcomes can be prevented by making sure that we talk with our General Practitioners regularly about our hearing and ask for a referral to an audiologist for testing when we are concerned about any changes.

Hearing testing is painless - and ensuring we hear well is an essential factor in preventing auditory cognitive dysfunction, maintaining general brain health, and thus decreasing the risk of dementia. Recording hearing changes over time is also a valuable part of long-term preventative health care. Being able to hear well is such an important issue – but its importance is often overlooked and misunderstood. If you have any questions about your hearing, please contact your health professional. 

For further information on hearing testing, contact your local team at Hearing Australia on 134 432.


This schematic is taken from an article by Johnson and colleagues (2021) and is available at doi:10.1093/brain/awaa429.

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