Hearing Loss and Dementia

Did you know that researchers have recently uncovered a strong correlation between hearing loss and dementia? Understanding the connection between these two interrelated health issues can help us to better understand each one of them on their own as well.

Dementia: The Facts

Dementia in and of itself is not a particular disease. Instead, it is a term used to describe other diseases (such as Alzheimer’s) that negatively affect memory, problem solving, thinking skills, or emotional processing. Currently, there are about 46 million people worldwide living with dementia, and someone new is diagnosed with the disease every three seconds. This number is expected to grow exponentially over the next 30 years, with the estimated number of people expected to be living with dementia by 2050 skyrocketing to a whopping 131 million.

Currently, there is no known cure for dementia, however, there are treatment options available to help slow cognitive decline. There are also preventative measures that can be taken to help reduce one’s risk of developing dementia. These measures include living a healthy lifestyle that involves eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, quitting smoking and limiting alcohol intake. Another great way to potentially reduce the risk of developing dementia: getting a hearing test.

How Dementia and Hearing Loss are Correlated

In 2011, a team of researchers out of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine published a research study with fascinating findings. To collect data, the researchers used information from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging (BLSA). The BLSA, was initiated by the National Institute on Aging and has tracked multiple health factors for thousands of people for many decades.

The authors chose 639 participants and followed them for 14-16 years, with repeat examinations every one to two years. Over the course of the study, the researchers found that people with hearing loss were at a significantly higher risk of developing dementia than their peers without hearing loss. The degree of hearing loss a person experienced played a big part in the findings as well.

Those with mild hearing loss were two times as likely to have developed dementia, those with moderate hearing loss were three times as likely, and those with severe hearing loss were a whopping five times more likely to have developed dementia over the course of the study than their peers with average hearing. Read the full study here.

Over the past decade or so, multiple studies conducted throughout the world have found similar results: people with hearing loss are at a greater risk of developing dementia than those with normal hearing.

Why the Correlation?

Why are hearing loss and dementia correlated? While the exact cause of the correlation is still unknown, there are two major schools of thought on the issue. The first is that when our brain is spending so much of its energy on listening, hearing and comprehending, less of this brainpower is left to complete other tasks such as memory and problem solving, which could lead to the development of dementia. The second school of thought surrounds social isolation. People with untreated hearing loss do tend to isolate themselves from social situations, as they become increasingly more difficult and frustrating. Unfortunately, social isolation has long been a known risk factor for developing dementia. Therefore, the lack of social interaction could be the reason for the link between hearing loss and dementia.

Dementia and Hearing Aids

While there is no doubt a connection between hearing loss and dementia, there is still hope! Research has also uncovered that treating hearing loss with hearing aids is an effective means to help slow the rate of cognitive decline. A recent study found that although those with untreated hearing loss experienced a higher risk of cognitive decline than their peers without hearing loss, those who chose to treat their hearing loss with hearing aids were at no greater risk of developing the disease than their peers with normal hearing.

Changes in Your Memory or Hearing?

If you have noticed changes in either your memory or your hearing, it is imperative that you reach out to a hearing healthcare professional for a comprehensive hearing exam. Oftentimes, problems with memory are simply issues of an untreated hearing loss, which can be remedied and alleviated by using hearing aids.
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