Have You Heard about the Links of Dementia and Hearing Loss?
Research into dementia has indicated that between 7-9 MILLION people worldwide are diagnosed with dementia every year. That works out to a dementia diagnosis occurring every 3-4 seconds! (According to the World Health Organization and Alzheimer’s Disease International).
Those numbers are pretty scary, but it is important to remember that dementia is not a normal consequence of aging. Dementia is a syndrome that is typically chronic and progressive in nature. It is caused by a variety of brain illnesses that affect thinking, ability to perform everyday activities, memory, and behavior. New research helps us to better understand the science of dementia and to come up with strategies to avoid the devastation of a dementia diagnosis.
Reducing risk factors due to diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease is important. It’s also important to increase social activity, enhance your education, and supplement your nutrition.
Managing Hearing Loss May Be the Most Modifiable, Effective Way to Prevent Dementia
In a study that tracked 639 adults for nearly 12 years, Johns Hopkins expert, Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues found that untreated mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk. Untreated moderate loss tripled risk, and people with untreated severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia.
Can hearing aids reduce these risks? Dr. Lin hopes to find out in a new study, still in the planning stages (expected results to be published in 2020, at the earliest). “These studies have never been done before,” he notes. “What we do know is that there’s no downside to using hearing aids. They help most people who try them. And in those people, they can make all the difference in the world—allowing people to reengage with friends and family and to be more involved again.”
The co-author of the Alzheimer’s Action Plan, P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D. is quoted as follows:
“The benefits of correcting hearing loss on cognition are twice as large as the benefits from any cognitive-enhancing drugs now on the market. It should be the first thing we focus on.”
Why Would Hearing Loss Contribute to Cognitive Problems and Dementia?
How might hearing loss contribute to cognitive problems and dementia? Based on current research, there are several possibilities. There may be a common physiological pathway that contributes to both hearing loss and cognitive decline or conditions that affect oxygen levels in the blood — for example, diabetes, obesity, or cardiovascular disease.
Other potential factors include:
I often say to my patients who are concerned about their memory to think about the fact that if they do not hear something accurately, then they cannot remember it accurately. Increased cognitive load is a risk factor in developing dementia.
Certain structures of brain cells can shrink when they don’t get enough stimulation. It makes sense intuitively that areas of the brain that do not get enough stimulation can shrink, due to a loss of neurons. Atrophy or brain shrinkage has been long documented as a risk factor in developing dementia.
I often tell loved ones to imagine walking around with a plexiglass bubble around their head. You can hear some sound, you can see people laughing and talking, but you just can’t tell what it is going on. You don’t get the joke, you don’t understand what people are saying.
It is like being in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. If you are struggling to converse, you’re less likely to go out with friends, or eat in restaurants, socialize in a group, or participate in physical activities. Social isolation, reduced physical activity, and depression have all long been recognized as risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia.
So, What Is the Answer?
A recent study done at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) concluded that when under the care of an audiologist, older adults who wore hearing aid systems performed significantly better on cognitive function tests than those who did not use hearing aid systems, even though those who were wearing hearing aids had poorer hearing. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
A study conducted by Audiologist, Jamie Desjardins, PhD, (University of Texas at El Paso), demonstrated that under the care of an audiologist, today’s current hearing loss treatment plans can improve brain function in people with hearing loss. After only two weeks of hearing loss treatment under the care of an audiologist, cognitive testing revealed a significant increase in percent scores for recalling words in working memory and selective attention tests. Processing speed also improved. By the end of the study, participants had exhibited significant improvement in their cognitive function.
Get your hearing checked by an audiologist. Stay away from “free hearing tests” and online hearing tests. Neither of those are diagnostic exams.
Doctors of Audiology are specifically trained in diagnosing the many different types of hearing loss and can recommend treatment or any necessary referral. If you have a sensorineural hearing loss, get the best results for your hearing by working with an audiologist who will design a treatment plan with technology especially for you and your lifestyle.
Steps for Improvement
Although hearing loss can go hand in hand with dementia, you can help improve your quality of life with some simple steps.
Maintaining an active lifestyle means staying as physically active as you can and being committed to be a lifelong learner. Those strategies will allow you keep an active brain and a healthy body which will go a long way towards reducing the risk of social isolation that puts you at risk for depression and cognitive decline.
A healthy body will reduce your risk of falling. Hearing-impaired adults are at a higher risk of falls than non-hearing-impaired adults.
If you have a sensorineural hearing loss, get the best results for your hearing by working with an audiologist who will design a treatment plan with technology especially for you and your lifestyle.
That’s a lot of time potentially missing out on important moments in life — not to mention the physical, mental, social, and even financial consequences linked to untreated hearing loss.
World Health Organization. Dementia. https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/dementia. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Alzheimer’s Disease International. Dementia Statistics. https://www.alz.co.uk/research/statistics. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Frankish H, Horton R. Prevention and Management of Dementia: A Priority for Public Health. The Lancet. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(17)31756-7/fulltext. Accessed May 31, 2019.
UTEP News Archive. UTEP Professor Shows That Hearing Aids Improve Memory, Speech. http://news.utep.edu/utep-professor-shows-that-hearing-aids-improve-memory-speech/. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Wiley Online Library. Longitudinal Relationship Between Hearing Aid Use and Cognitive Function in Older Americans. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jgs.15363. Accessed May 31, 2019.
NPR. Want to Keep Your Brain Sharp? Take Care of Your Eyes and Ears. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/10/22/658810909/can-t-hear-well-fixing-hearing-losscan-keep-your-memory-sharper. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. Hearing Loss Linked to Accelerated Brain Tissue Loss. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/hearing_loss_linked_to_accelerated_brain_tissue_loss_. Accessed May 31, 2019.
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Untreated Hearing Loss in Adults — a Growing National Epidemic. https://www.asha.org/Articles/Untreated-Hearing-Loss-in-Adults/. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Columbia University Irving Medical Center News. Hearing Aid Use Is Associated with Improved Cognitive Function in Hearing-Impaired Elderly: Study Suggests Hearing Loss Contributes to Sensory-Specific Cognitive Decline. https://www.cuimc.columbia.edu/news/hearing-aid-use-associated-improved-cognitive-function-hearing-impaired-elderly. Accessed May 31, 2019.