Untreated Hearing Loss and Dementia: What we know so far

Many of us know someone with dementia… probably a grandparent, parent, or spouse. These are people we love and care about. We are an “aging population” here in the United States, meaning more and more of us are living to be older than ever before. This means more and more of us will develop dementia as the years roll by.

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Untreated Hearing Loss and Dementia: What we know so far

Untreated Hearing Loss and Dementia: What we know so far

Many of us know someone with dementia… probably a grandparent, parent, or spouse. These are  people we love and care about. We are an “aging population” here in the United States, meaning more and more of us are living to be older than ever before. This means more and more of us will develop dementia as the years roll by.

There are many things that increase our risk for developing dementia.  Some of these things are outside of our control, but there are things we CAN do to help lower our risk.  Exercising helps. Not smoking helps. Even staying connected with friends and family helps. Thanks to  some hard work by teams of scientists, we know treating hearing loss can be an exceptionally effective  way to lower our risk of developing dementia. 

Here are the quick facts about hearing loss & dementia: 

  • Untreated hearing loss increases risk of developing dementia.  
  • Hearing loss can lead to isolation and feeling lonely, which increases risk of dementia.  
  • A person with hearing loss can feel alone even when surrounded by family and friends, because  they cannot hear or communicate with them.  
  • If you already have memory issues or cognitive decline, getting hearing aids can help stop those  problems from getting worse or slow the progression down significantly.  

I realized after reading this research that, when you stop and think about it, it all makes sense. Hearing aids keep you connected to the world around you. They keep you “grounded” in reality. You hear your  footsteps again… the birds chirping outside. You hear people speaking in the other room, and your dog’s  claws on the hardwood floor. We get A TON of information and awareness about our surroundings  through our hearing. Your brain needs that stimulation… it craves it. It wants to know what’s happening  around you at all times. The more we stimulate the brain, the stronger it becomes. The less we stimulate  the brain… the weaker it becomes.  

Meaningful conversations help build strong relationships. They keep us connected with our family and  friends. When you have hearing loss, communication is difficult. The brain can only do so many things at  once. With hearing loss, you must focus hard to understand what someone is saying. You may hear  some words, but not others. With hearing loss, speech is not clear like it used to be.

As a result, you must “puzzle together” what was said… using context clues and lip-reading cues to make your best  guess. If you spend all your time and effort trying to understand what someone said, it becomes almost  impossible to simultaneously think of a thoughtful and meaningful response. As a result, conversations become very one-sided, so people may stop talking to you as much. You end up having fewer conversations… and less communication equals more isolation, which leads to increased risk of  developing dementia.  

All these points have been backed by research. These are some bold claims… so for the skeptics out  there (and I usually count myself as one of them), I have compiled a list of the latest research on this topic. If you continue reading… you will find a brief overview of each research study that explains how the research was done and what the main findings were.

Each study is numbered… and at the very end  of this article you will find the full numbered citations in list form. If you are not interested in these little details (and I wouldn’t blame you if you were not… it’s pretty dry stuff!), then I’d like to leave you with  one final thought:  

Hearing aids have come a long, long way in the past 10 years. They provide cleaner, crisper sound than  ever before. They make communication easy again. After wearing hearing aids, you find yourself less tired at the end of the day, because hearing people no longer takes your full concentration and effort. You’ll have more confidence going to family gatherings and restaurants, and may find yourself laughing along with your loved ones because you actually heard the joke that was said at the dinner table. Treating your hearing loss can have far-reaching benefits, from dementia prevention to tinnitus relief to general improved quality of life.  

Hearing Loss and Dementia: Summary of Latest Research 

Study 1 (2014) 

The first study is a simple one… published in 2014 (2). Follow a group of 4,000+ people age 65 and older  for 12 years… and see who develops dementia and who does not. People with hearing loss were more  likely to develop dementia than people who had normal hearing. This was one of the early studies that  first noticed a link between hearing loss and dementia.  

Study 2 (2018) 

A team of researchers studied the “memory abilities” of a large group of people every 2 years for almost 2 decades. Some of those people decided to get hearing aids… others never did. The results were clear:  By the end of the study, the people that wore hearing aids showed better memory abilities than those that did not… and the earlier the person got their hearing aids, the better their memory was in the long term.  

Study 3 (2021) 

If you already have memory issues, is it too late for hearing aids to help? 

Well, a study just published in 2021 involved patients that ALREADY had mild cognitive impairment or  early signs of dementia. One group of patients decided they wanted to wear hearing aids. The other  group did not. The level of cognitive impairment between the groups was then tracked and compared  over time.

THE RESULTS: In the “No Hearing Aids” group… signs of dementia increased over time. In the  “Yes Hearing Aids” group, signs of dementia stayed about the same. It’s as if hearing aids helped prevent  their symptoms of dementia from getting worse. Hearing aids cannot reverse damage that has already  been done to the brain… but they may help to prevent things from getting worse. This means it is never  too late to get hearing aids, but the sooner you get them, the better off you will be.  

Citations 

1. Gurgel, Richard K., et al. "Relationship of hearing loss and dementia: a prospective, population-based  study." Otology & neurotology: official publication of the American Otological Society, American  Neurotology Society [and] European Academy of Otology and Neurotology 35.5 (2014): 775. 

2. Maharani, Asri, et al. "Longitudinal relationship between hearing aid use and cognitive function in older  Americans." Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 66.6 (2018): 1130-1136. 

3. Bucholc, Magda, et al. "Association of the use of hearing aids with the conversion from mild cognitive  impairment to dementia and progression of dementia: A longitudinal retrospective study." Alzheimer's &  Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions 7.1 (2021): e12122. 

4. Liu, Chin-Mei, and Charles Tzu-Chi Lee. "Association of hearing loss with dementia." JAMA network  open 2.7 (2019): e198112-e198112. 

5. Chern, Alexander, and Justin S. Golub. "Age-related hearing loss and dementia." Alzheimer disease  and associated disorders 33.3 (2019): 285 

6. Livingston, Gill, et al. "Dementia prevention, intervention, and care." The Lancet 390.10113 (2017):  2673-2734. 

7. Kuiper, Jisca S., et al. "Social relationships and risk of dementia: A systematic review and meta analysis of longitudinal cohort studies." Ageing research reviews 22 (2015): 39-57.


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