Two realities of growing older are possibly suffering from hearing loss or dementia—and at least one study suggests there could be a link between the two.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), about 25 percent of those age 65 to 74 and about 50 percent of those age 75 and older have disabling hearing loss. The number of individuals living with dementia—with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common cause of the brain disorder—is expected to reach 66 million by 2030 and 131 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Although both hearing loss and dementia are considered separate conditions, a study published in 2013 by the JAMA Internal Medicine found a link between them. The study tracked the cognitive abilities of almost 2,000 older adults with the average age of 77 over a period of six years. It found that those with hearing loss were 24 percent more likely to experience a decline in cognitive abilities, and those abilities can decline 30 to 40 percent faster than those who had normal hearing abilities.
“Our results show that hearing loss should not be considered an inconsequential part of aging, because it may come with some serious long-term consequences to healthy brain functioning,” stated Frank Lin in a Johns Hopkins Medicine press release. Lin led the study and is an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the university’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Subsequent independent studies have produced similar conclusions, however, there is no clear answer why there is a link between dementia and hearing loss. Lin suggested four theories: social isolation caused by hearing loss; “cognitive load,” meaning when you cannot hear well, your brain is forced to work excessively and strains it; physiological reasons, like blood pressure, that affect both brain and hearing health; and the possibility that hearing loss may affect the brain’s overall structure.
Although the reasons aren’t clear why dementia and hearing loss may be connected, the study’s outcome does make a strong case for how early and aggressive treatment of hearing loss may help delay the onset of dementia. According to NIDCD, less than 16 percent of those who need a hearing aid use one, and a large number of people wait almost 15 years from the time they know they have hearing loss to get a hearing aid.
Take measures to protect your hearing and get your hearing regularly checked. If your hearing specialist or doctor recommends a hearing aid, immediately move forward in getting one. Be sure to check the license of your audiologist and hearing aid dispenser on the Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology and Hearing Aid Dispensers Board’s website at www.speechandhearing.ca.gov.