Research into the Links Between Dementia and Hearing Loss

Hearing Health Blog
For those of you who have suffered some form of hearing loss, do you ever find yourself having to work very hard to understand what is being said to you or around you? This sensation of having to try to understand people is common even among people who wear hearing aids, because the aids must be adjusted and tuned correctly to work well, and you need to become used to using them.

As though that was not bad enough, it may not be just your hearing that is impacted, but also cognitive abilities. In recent studies, scientists have discovered that hearing loss drastically raises your chances of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s.

One of these studies, conducted at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, analyzed 639 individuals between the ages of 36 and 90, for a total of sixteen years. At the conclusion of the study, scientists found that 58 people (9%) had been identified as suffering from dementia, and that 37 of them (5.8%) had developed Alzheimer’s. Researchers found that for every ten decibels of hearing loss, the participants’ chances of developing dementia went up by 20 percent; the greater the hearing loss, the greater their chance of dementia.

In a similar study, evaluating 1,984 participants, researchers observed a similar connection between hearing loss and dementia, but they also found that the hearing-impaired suffered noticeable declines in their cognitive capabilities. The hearing-impaired individuals developed memory loss and reduced thinking capacity 40% faster than individuals with normal hearing. In each of the two studies, an even more dismal discovery was that this relationship was not reduced by using hearing aids.

The link between loss of hearing and loss of cognitive abilities is an open area of inquiry, but researchers have suggested a few hypotheses to explain the results observed thus far. Scientists have coined the term cognitive overload in association with one specific theory. Some researchers think that if you are hearing-impaired, your brain tires itself out so much just trying to hear that it has a diminished capacity to understand what is being said. Maintaining a two-way conversation requires understanding. A lack of understanding causes interactions to break down and might lead to social isolation. A distinct line of thought, theorizes that dementia and hearing are not causally related to each other at all. Rather the theory suggests that they are both the result of a third player. This unknown disorder could be vascular, environmental or genetic in nature.

However dismal these study results may sound, there are things to be learned from them. For those of us who use hearing aids, these results serve as a reminder to see our hearing specialists regularly to keep the aids properly adjusted and tuned, so that we’re not continually straining to hear. If you don’t have to work so hard to hear, you have greater cognitive power to comprehend what is being said, and remember it. Also, if the 2 conditions are connected, early detection of hearing impairment may eventually lead to interventions that could prevent dementia.

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