Hearing Loss and Dementia's Relationship

Hearing loss impacts cognitive decline.

Are hearing loss and dementia connected?

Many studies show a connection between hearing loss and dementia, a condition marked by memory loss and trouble with thinking and problem-solving. In fact, hearing loss is estimated to account for 8 percent of dementia cases in the US. The good news: Treating hearing loss aggressively can actually help ward off cognitive decline and dementia.

Does hearing loss cause dementia?

The latest aging research has not only drawn connections between hearing loss and dementia, but it’s also leading scientists to believe that it may actually be a cause of dementia. Research is still ongoing, but studies detailing the prevalence of hearing loss cases are providing more information about their correlation and causes. 

In a 2011 study, scientists found that the greater a person’s hearing loss,  the greater their chances for cognitive decline seem to be. Mild, moderate and severe hearing loss meant the odds were two, three and five times greater, respectively, over the following 10-plus years. [1] Researchers also examined participants’ lifestyles to determine the effects of social interactions, health conditions and involvement in leisure activities on the prevalence of dementia and cognitive decline.  

A 2013 study found that participants with hearing loss severe enough to interfere with conversation had a decline in cognitive ability 30 percent to 40 percent faster than those with normal hearing, over a period of six years. Researchers found that levels of declining brain function were directly related to the degree of hearing loss. On average, older adults with hearing loss developed impairments in their cognitive health 3.2 years sooner than their peers with normal hearing. [2]

Finally, a 2020 report found that out of 12 risk factors,  hearing impairment presented the greatest risk of dementia. Researchers found that there was a 8 percent reduction in dementia prevalence if hearing loss was eliminated as a potential danger. At the same time, the report noted a decrease in cognition for every 10 decibel reduction in hearing. [3]

How is hearing loss linked to dementia?

Several factors account for the relationship between hearing loss and dementia, including: 

  • Cognitive Load: If you suffer from hearing loss, your brain must work much harder to process sound. Other regions of the brain, even areas that don’t normally process sound, are used to take in sounds to make up for the hearing’s reduced ability. More of the brain is needed and more effort is expended to understand any noises or stimuli. This takes away resources that could be used for other cognitive activities. 
  • Social Isolation: Numerous studies show a direct link between feeling lonely or isolated and dementia. Studies have found that for every decibel drop in perception in people under 70, the odds of becoming severely lonely increases by seven percent. When you have hearing difficulties, it’s more difficult to join in conversations or interact with friends, family and colleagues, leading to a sense of isolation or even avoiding interactions altogether. This isolation can raise the risk of numerous adverse health effects, including depression and anxiety. 
  • Auditory Processing: You are no longer picking up as many sounds when you have hearing loss, which means your hearing is sending fewer signals to your brain. As a result of having less to process, your brain function begins to decline. Receiving fewer signals in the brain also means that people with hearing loss experience faster rates of brain atrophy. 

Is hearing loss a sign of dementia?

As we’ve seen, scientists are conducting ongoing research to tease out the details of the connections between hearing loss and dementia. The question of whether hearing loss is a sign of dementia doesn’t have a definitive answer just yet. The associations between the two conditions are increasingly well-documented, but the causation of one in relationship to the other remains undefined.

If hearing loss is a sign of dementia, it is one of many. Both hearing loss and dementia are complex conditions with many potential contributing factors and symptoms. While the search for more refined understanding continues, the links between hearing loss and dementia of which we are already aware can help us make decisions that support hearing health and stave off dementia. 

How can hearing aids help prevent dementia?

It’s important to note that just because someone is at an increased risk for dementia, it does not necessarily mean that person is certain to develop it. However, you can take steps to prevent the condition.

Some experts believe the treatment of hearing loss in mid-to-late life could prevent 9% of dementia cases globally. Hearing aids are the most effective way to treat noise-induced or age-related hearing loss.

It's never too late to protect your hearing health

Make hearing health a priority by forming good daily habits and taking active steps to protect your health. By properly caring for your ears every day, you’ll be able to protect your hearing for the future and stay connected to the life you love. 

  • Avoid harmful noise: Protect your hearing from potential damage caused by loud noises by wearing hearing protection. Use earplugs or ear muffs when at concerts [1] , while firing guns or when you’re in a particularly loud commercial, industrial, or recreational environment. [2]  If you work in a loud environment [3]  that could put you at risk of hearing loss, use hearing protection and practice workplace hearing conservation measures.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Incorporate healthy habits into your daily life to keep both your body and ears in their best shape. Create an exercise routine [1] that will give you at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular activity per week. Combining weight lifting (even with weights as light as 1-2 pounds) with cardio activities is a great way to support your overall physical health. At the same time, include regular brain games to exercise your mind and your hearing. Incorporate ear-health-boosting vitamins and minerals [2]  into your diet, either through meals or through supplements to help or improve common hearing conditions. 
  • Get your hearing checked annually: At Miracle-Ear, your hearing tests are free and are conducted by a hearing care professional, who will help you understand your results and how your needs can be addressed. Many hearing problems can be treated if caught early. And if you already have hearing loss, it’s important to closely monitor how it changes over time to stay on top of any problems. 

 

The relationship between hearing loss and dementia is something to keep in mind for yourself, but also something to look for in others. If you think you’ve been experiencing hearing loss, or if you see signs in a loved one, schedule a free hearing evaluation at your local Miracle-Ear and discuss hearing loss treatment options today.  

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