Although it may not be the most obvious connection at first pass, researchers have continued to find connections between hearing loss and dementia, such as Alzheimer’s Disease.
What is hearing loss?
There are two types of hearing loss, sensorineural and conductive. Since it is the most common type, we will focus now on sensorineural hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when there is damage to the tiny hair cells in your inner ear. The more damaged these cells become, the more difficult it is for them to properly transmit signals to the brain, therefore the more difficult it is for one to hear.
What is dementia?
Dementia is a general term used for loss of thinking abilities such as memory, problem-solving, and language abilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease – accounting for between 60-80% of dementia diagnoses (https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-dementia). Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s Disease and other types of dementia are typically progressive, which means that cognitive function continues to decline over time. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, but instead there are interventions that can be used to help delay the onset or progression of dementia.
How are hearing loss and dementia correlated?
Especially during the past decade or so, researchers have begun discovering some interesting correlations between hearing loss and dementia. One of the most cited of these studies was conducted in 2011 by researchers out of Johns Hopkins Department of Otolaryngology. The research used the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging to pull data on 639 participants over the course of about 11 years.
The findings were quite astonishing. In the parameters of this research, participants with mild hearing loss were twice as likely to have developed dementia over the course of the study, as compared to their peers without hearing loss. More shockingly, those with moderate hearing loss were three times as likely, and those with severe hearing loss were five times as likely than their peers without hearing loss to have developed dementia. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3277836/).
Many follow-up studies have been conducted since 201. The findings consistently suggest that there seems to be an increased risk for developing dementia amongst those with hearing loss.
Why are hearing loss and dementia correlated?
Researchers are unsure of exactly why hearing loss and dementia are related, however, there are a few different theories as to why this connection may exist.
- Some believe that a strain of cognitive resources may be the reason. Some researchers and medical professionals believe that the connection between hearing loss and dementia may be the result of limited cognitive resources. With hearing loss (especially untreated hearing loss) the brain uses a great amount of effort and energy on the task of listening. Because of this strain on cognitive resources, the brain may have less energy left over for tasks such as problem solving and memory.
- Some believe social isolation to be the link. With untreated hearing loss, there is typically an increased risk of becoming socially isolated. Those with untreated hearing loss are likely to often avoid the activities they used to enjoy. It is difficult to enjoy social gatherings when conversing with groups of people in noisier environments is frustrating and/or downright impossible. Researchers have long known that social isolation is a risk factor for developing dementia, which is one reason why those with hearing loss may present with an increased risk.
What can I do to lower my risk of developing dementia?
Getting a hearing test and treating hearing loss won’t completely mitigate one’s chances of developing dementia. However, studies have shown that treating hearing loss can help to prolong the onset and progression of dementia for some individuals. If you have noticed changes in your hearing, reach out to our friendly team at The Hearing Doctor today.