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Hearing Loss and Dementia: What We Know Now
Throughout the last decade, medical researchers and healthcare professionals have been noting a correlation between hearing loss and risk for developing dementia. While there is still quite some mystery surrounding this correlation, research has found there is an undeniable correlation between hearing loss and dementia risk. Keeping these statistics in mind can help us to better care for both hearing health and cognitive health of ourselves and the people we love.
How are hearing loss and dementia correlated?
In 2011, Dr. Frank Lin and his colleagues from Johns Hopkins University published findings of a startling study. The researchers had followed about 640 adults for 12-18 years, testing both their hearing ability and their cognitive ability consistently. At the end of the study, it was discovered that those with moderate hearing loss were three times more likely to have developed dementia over the course of the study than their peers without hearing loss. Participants with severe hearing loss were five times as likely to have developed dementia than those who did not experience hearing loss (https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-07-2013/hearing-loss-linked-to-dementia.html).
After this groundbreaking research was published, many researchers conducted similar studies with similar results. Those with untreated hearing loss almost always experienced a higher risk of developing dementia or experiencing cognitive decline than those without hearing loss.
Why are hearing loss and dementia correlated?
There are several theories surrounding the correlation between hearing loss and an increased risk for dementia.
One theory suggests cognitive load is responsible for this correlation. Straining to hear and understand puts a lot of stress on the brain, and causes it to work a lot harder and extend a lot more energy than the brain of someone without hearing loss. If one’s brain power is focused on simply hearing, there is less energy available for more high level tasks, such as creating memories.
The second theory regards social isolation. For a very long time, researchers have understood that social isolation increases the risk for developing dementia. Individuals with untreated hearing loss often experience social isolation. When conversations are difficult to hear and understand, social situations can become stressful and frustrating. Because of this, many people subconsciously begin isolating themselves socially, thus putting themselves at a higher risk of developing dementia.
How do I protect myself and my loved ones?
- Get regular hearing screenings. Hearing loss is very gradual, meaning most people do not even realize they have hearing loss until their hearing has deteriorated significantly. Starting at age 50, it is recommended that adults check their hearing annually. Regular hearing screenings can help you to keep track of your hearing health, and will also allow you to begin treatment and intervention as early as possible, thus mitigating the negative effects associated with hearing loss – including an increased risk of dementia.
- Protect your healthy hearing today. You are never too young or too old to begin protecting your hearing health. One of the prevalent causes of hearing loss is excess exposure to loud noises. Be sure to utilize proper hearing protection when exposed to loud noises. When listening to music using headphones, keep the volume at 60% of the max and limit use to 60 minutes per day to protect your hearing.
- Treat your hearing loss. Studies have found that people who choose to treat their hearing loss with hearing aids mitigate many of the negative effects that have been associated with hearing loss – including dementia. Hearing aids are programmed with a custom prescription that will be tailored and fine tuned by your provider to meet your hearing needs; this allows you to hear more clearly in both quiet and complex environments, and will help alleviate the brain fatigue associated with hearing loss.