About 50 million people are living with dementia today, including more than five percent of people over age 60. In the next thirty years, that number is expected to more than triple.
Dementia is not a disease, but a syndrome: a cluster of symptoms that cause problems with cognitive tasks like memory and reasoning.
Dementia has more than one cause. Many people confuse dementia with Alzheimer’s, when Alzheimer’s is really just one cause of dementia. Other causes include Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, stroke and depression.
But, in the last few years, research has uncovered a previously unrecognized cause of dementia…
The good news is that this one may be easier to prevent, or at least slow down, saving many people from losing years of their life to dementia.
How hearing loss speeds up cognitive loss
Hearing loss is the most common age-related condition affecting older adults. According to the National Institute on Aging, one in three people ages 65 to 74 and almost half of people age 75 and older experience age-related hearing loss.
We are now seeing evidence that this hearing loss has a direct connection to cognitive ability. In other words, when you lose some hearing, you move closer to dementia.
In 2011, researchers at Johns Hopkins University confirmed a correlation between hearing loss and dementia. The same team of researchers went further in 2013, trying to determine if hearing loss was indeed a risk factor that could be controlled in order to prevent dementia.
While they were not able to prove this beyond a doubt, their findings certainly point in that direction. Compared with those who had normal hearing, subjects with hearing loss showed a 30 to 40 percent greater rate of cognitive decline over a six-year period.
What happens in the brain
In his 2012 manuscript, “How Hearing Loss Affects the Brain,” Arthur Wingfield of Brandeis University and Jonathan Peelle of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Neurology make a convincing case for why the hearing-cognition connection makes sense.
Basically, when a hearing-impaired person struggles to understand the words they’re hearing, they are drawing on brain resources that would otherwise be used to store that information in memory, or to follow the flow of a fast-paced conversation.
Along with this struggle, which the authors call “effortful listening,” comes an increased stress response and poor memory performance, which can happen with even a moderate degree of hearing loss.
In a 2011 study, the authors had used MRIs to monitor brain activity in persons with hearing loss. When listening to complex sentences, these people had less activity in their auditory cortex, the brain region that processes speech.
Can hearing aids help?
In a 2015 study, patients age 65 to 85 with profound hearing loss showed marked improvements in speech perception and cognitive performance when they received a cochlear implant.
And in a more recent study examining hearing aid use and dementia, the researchers concluded that “providing hearing aids or other rehabilitative services for hearing impairment much earlier in the course of hearing impairment may stem the worldwide rise of dementia.”
How can you tell if your hearing is impaired?
First, remember that hearing loss is a common part of aging, and it can be gradual. In fact, you may not even realize how much loss you’re experiencing, until it is profound.
If you think it’s happening to you, it’s important not to put off getting help because you’re embarrassed. Getting help sooner could prevent dementia later.
An audiologist can evaluate you for hearing loss, but here are some questions to ask yourself initially:
- Am I avoiding social situations because I can’t hear well?
- Am I having trouble following conversations?
- Am I turning the volume higher on the TV or radio?
- Has my poor hearing caused arguments or misunderstandings with family or friends?
If a few of these are true, it may be time to get your hearing evaluated.
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- Association of Age-Related Hearing Loss With Cognitive Function, Cognitive Impairment, and Dementia — JAMA Otolaryngology –Head & Neck Surgery
- Longitudinal Relationship Between Hearing Aid Use and Cognitive Function in Older Americans — Journal of the American Geriatrics Society
- Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline in Older Adults — JAMA Internal Medicine
- What’s the connection between hearing and cognitive health? — National Institute on Aging
- How does hearing loss affect the brain? — Journal of Aging and Health
- Hearing loss in older adults affects neural systems supporting speech comprehension — The Journal of Neuroscience