The Connection Between Hearing Loss & Dementia
For a long time, hearing loss was seen as something that affected only the ears. But a growing body of research has linked the condition to a host of long-term conditions, including most worryingly, dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological disease that affects the thoughts, memories, behaviors, emotions and mood of your brain. Most adults who experience Alzheimer’s disease are 65 years old or older and it affects many people worldwide. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia reported, accounting for approximately 90% of the different types of dementia reported. It is one of the most common causes of death in this country for older adults.
Any precondition, such as hearing loss, which makes dementia more likely to occur deserves our attention.
A Link Between Hearing Loss & Dementia
A 2011 study showed that hearing loss can increase your chance of developing dementia. The study was led by Dr. Frank Lin, Professor of Otolaryngology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, who gathered a group of scientists across the United States. The study focused on a group of over 600 adults. Between 1990 and 1994, these individuals completed a series of tests to assess their mental and hearing abilities and were tracked until 2008. During these years, scientists also tracked the potential development of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia in these individuals. About a third of the group had some form of hearing loss and the remaining participants had no problems hearing. None had dementia at the start of the study. The researchers concluded that those who experienced hearing loss at the start of the study were far more prone to developing dementia — the more severe the hearing loss, the greater the chance of dementia. In fact, Dr. Frank Lin estimated that for every 10 decibels of hearing loss, the chance of dementia jumped by 20%. The risk was worse for those participants who were 60 years of age or older—36% of their dementia risk was estimated to be associated with hearing loss.
Why the Connection Between Hearing Loss & Dementia?
According to Dr. Lin, there are three main theories for how hearing loss may contribute to cognitive decline and dementia.
For untreated hearing loss, a person must focus hard on decoding the bits and pieces of information that they hear. Putting that together could overload their cognitive capabilities. It puts a lot of pressure on the brain, which spends far too much time working on sound processing. This could leave less energy for other processes, such as processing memories, time, and spatial orientation and awareness. All of these symptoms are linked to dementia.
Hearing loss can contribute directly to increased levels of degeneration in parts of the brain that handle sound. According to Lin, these parts of the brain are not mutually exclusive, but “also play roles in memory and sensory integration and have been shown to be involved in the early stages of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.”
If hearing loss goes untreated, you may find yourself detaching from the normal social groups to which you once belonged. The explanation for this is a loss in the ability to communicate and interact with friends, relatives, or colleagues. The inability to connect thoroughly drives one to the margins and affects our social well-being. Various studies have found that this lack of participation and depression are risk factors for cognitive decline.
Hearing Loss Is Not Just an Ear Issue
Hearing loss is so widespread that it has long been thought of as a normal part of getting older and no major cause of concern. But the studies we’ve highlighted have shown that there may be a greater risk to health than expected and that interventions as basic as hearing aids could have a huge impact on healthy brain function.
It’s therefore important to monitor your hearing loss regularly in order to reduce the chances of dementia. The easiest way to do this is with an annual hearing test.