For over a quarter century, scientists and medical professionals have been researching a possible link between hearing loss and Alzheimer’s disease. Many long-term studies have been concluded in the last several years, leading to surprising and concerning conclusions. While the mechanisms are not fully understood, there is strong evidence for a correlation between hearing loss and Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Whether that relationship is also causative remains a subject of research. However, there is some indication that recognizing and treating hearing loss early on can reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Why do we call it Alzheimer’s and dementia? Dementia is a general term, not a specific disease. Dementia is a group of symptoms that combine to create a general decline in mental function, such as thinking and memory. Typically, mental decline is considered dementia when it has progressed to the point of interfering with normal daily activities.
Alzheimer’s disease is the largest single cause of dementia, accounting for 60% to 80% of cases. Vascular dementia is a decline in mental function due to a stroke. It is the second most common cause of dementia. Some other causes of dementia include thyroid issues and even vitamin deficiencies. In some adults, often seniors, symptoms of dementia may be present without an exact diagnosis of the cause.
Here are some quick facts about Alzheimer’s and dementia:
- Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and the fifth leading cause in Americans over 65.
- 1 in 3 American seniors will die with symptoms of Alzheimer’s or other dementia.
- Between 2000 and 2015, deaths from Alzheimer’s have increased by 123%.
- 16.1 million Americans provide a combined 18.4 billion hours of unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia every year.
What these numbers tell us is that Alzheimer’s and dementia is a quickly growing medical problem. As the number of seniors rises each year, more and more people are at risk for some type of dementia. While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, early diagnosis can help patients prepare for end-of-life decisions before the full onset of dementia, and give them a chance to arrange for proper care for themselves and their families. Some research also indicates that behaviors and lifestyle changes that may slow the onset of Alzheimer’s if it is diagnosed early.
Hearing Loss and Dementia
When it comes to the link between hearing loss and dementia, the research is a bit unclear. Almost all researchers who have studied the relationship between hearing loss and cognitive impairment have found a link. It is empirically true that people with hearing loss are more likely to have cognitive impairment. Research indicates that as the level of hearing loss increases, so does the risk of dementia. That dementia and hearing loss are in some way related has been well documented. The dispute comes in trying to figure out what causes the link, or what we can actually do about it.
There are some theories as to what the link between hearing loss and dementia may be. In brief, these are the top theories.
- Hearing loss makes it harder for people to interact socially. The growing social isolation with increasing hearing loss puts patients at risk of dementia since we know that social interaction is essential to proper brain function, especially as we age.
- When the part of the brain that processes sound is no longer being used as much, it can atrophy. That same part of the brain is linked to memory. Any shift in how the brain is used may cause overall damage.
- Straining to hear places too much strain on the brain. Patients whose brains are constantly exerting a large part of their energy on differentiating sound may have less brain power to use on memory and other cognitive functions.
- Dementia and hearing loss may have a common cause. The fact that the risk of one goes up along with the other may be due to an increase in whatever is causing both symptoms.
Some of these possibilities are more treatable than others. In many cases, improving hearing could help counteract some of the increased risk of dementia.
The Effects of Hearing Aids
This is the most controversial and the most exciting areas of current research. Some earlier research was discouraging. A study by Frank R. Lin, MD, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, concluded that there was a link between hearing loss and dementia, but that self-reported use of hearing aids did not affect levels of dementia. However, more recent research has had more promising results.
A study done by French researcher, Isabelle Mosnier of Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris, studied the effects of cochlear ear implants on cognitive function in adults over 65. The research showed that nearly 80% of test subjects experienced some cognitive improvement after 12 months. What is significant about this study is that it demonstrated that hearing restoration can actually improve cognitive ability, not just prevent it from worsening.
Other studies have shown that the use of hearing aids significantly increased the quality of life for many seniors. Quality of life was measured by a number of factors. Seniors with hearing aids experienced improvements in mental ability as well and physical and emotional health. They also reported improved relationships at home and at work and an increased sense of independence. Since it all of these factors, when diminished, increase the risk of dementia, it seems promising that hearing aids could help reduce the risk.
What Should We Be Doing to Prevent Dementia?
When it all comes down to it, what does the research tell us about preventing dementia? Well, to be technical about it, the results are not conclusive. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you can be doing. First of all, we know that hearing aids increase the quality of life for those who use them. So there is no reason not be using hearing aids. As for their effect on dementia, the jury is out. However, even if it does affect rates of dementia, the connection does not seem to be direct. It is not that improving hearing automatically reduces the chances, or effects, of dementia. Instead, it is what improved hearing does for seniors that makes all the difference.
One thing that many seniors struggle with is increased isolation and decreased stimulation. As they age, so do their friends and peers. The world around a senior shifts. The professionals they have dealt with for decades, such as doctors, accountants, handymen, etc. leave the workforce, leaving seniors with a whole new set of unfamiliar relationships. Friends pass on, move to be near children, or become institutionalized. Physical activities that used to get them out of the house are no longer possible. Hearing loss is just one more way that interaction with the world becomes harder. The resulting isolation can be crippling. Mental health may suffer. A lack of stimulation increases the risk of dementia. And too little physical activity worsens the typical symptoms of aging. Hearing aids can help with one aspect of isolation, but friends, family, and loved ones are just as important.
The best way to prevent or delay the onset of dementia is to stay active and involved with the world. Hearing aids can help people with hearing loss do the things they love and stay attached to friends, family, and community.
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