Hearing Loss Linked to Increased Risk of Dementia
Approximately 1 in 3 people between the ages of 65 and 74 have a hearing loss, making it the third most common health condition affecting older adults, according to the National Institute of Aging.
Hearing loss, however, can strike at any time and affects people of all ages. More than 32 million Americans (more than 10%) report difficulty hearing.
While loss of hearing is frustrating, its consequences are much more serious than originally thought.
A 2012 Johns Hopkins study revealed that hearing loss is related to walking problems, falls, and dementia. The study found that mild hearing loss doubled the risk of dementia, while moderate loss tripled the risk. People with severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia.
“The Johns Hopkins study was a ‘wow’ moment for many people. The findings were eye-opening,” says Amanda Long, doctor of audiology, Hearing Health USA. “A number of studies since have shown a significant correlation between untreated hearing loss and dementia and other cognitive functions.”
Studies suggest there are three possible links as to why hearing loss raises the risk for dementia and other cognitive functions.
First, when the hearing section of the brain grows inactive, it results in tissue loss, shrinking the brain.
Second, when the brain has to work harder to just understand people, it steals brain power needed for other crucial functions, such as remembering, thinking, and action.
Lastly, people with hearing loss tend to isolate themselves socially. When a person withdraws from life, their risk for dementia increases.
Untreated hearing loss also has been linked to depression, anxiety, irritability, fatigue, stress, loneliness, impaired memory, strained relationships, poor job performance, reduced ability to learn new skills, and more.
One study showed that participants with untreated hearing loss experienced rates of cognitive decline 30%–50% faster than those with normal hearing.
Early identification and intervention of hearing loss might potentially reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
Although the Lancer Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention, and Care has identified hearing loss as one of the top potentially modifiable risk factors for dementia, it has not been established whether correcting hearing loss can significantly reverse or slow ongoing cognitive decline.
“More studies are needed on this topic,” says Long. “But, it’s clear that treating hearing loss, at a minimum, will improve your quality of life.”
People with hearing loss have many more options available to them than a decade ago. Hearing aid technology has advanced significantly in recent years. They are smaller, sleeker, and more stylish. The sound quality is much better. Advanced features allow for more connectivity, customization, and tracking.
Here are some of the features available on different models of hearing aids:
Smartphone connectivity. Some of the latest hearing aids are able to connect wirelessly with Android and iPhone devices. Hearing aid apps allow you to make adjustments to your hearing aid by using your smartphone, track your hearing aid battery life, download new programs and updates from your hearing-care professional, connect to accessories such as television streaming devices, and more.
Rechargeable hearing aids. Having to regularly replace tiny batteries is one of the drawbacks of many hearing aids. Today, however, rechargeable hearing aids have eliminated the hassle. They can be recharged overnight (like your cellphone) and function throughout the day. With hearing aids without batteries, as these models are called, you don’t have to worry about a battery going dead.
Health and wellness monitors. Much like a Fitbit, some hearing aids can monitor your physical activity as well as vital signs like body temperature and blood pressure. Some can even register how much you interact with others by detecting when you are speaking to someone else. Expect this feature to become even more sophisticated in the future.
Fall detectors. Individuals with a hearing loss are much more likely to fall than others. Some hearing aids can detect when a person falls. It will notify up to three emergency contacts that the wearer has fallen and their location.
Language translation. This cool feature offers translation in 27 languages. As someone is speaking, the device translates into English in real time.
While technological advancements are great, Long recognizes that technology also can be overwhelming.
“Hearing aids are first and foremost to improve your hearing,” she says. “It’s important to remember that you can still get a basic hearing aid. The extra features are nice, but not essential.”
While there are many benefits to treating hearing loss, current hearing aid users, on average, waited 10 years before seeking help.
So, resistance to hearing aids is common. Some people don’t want to admit to their hearing loss, and others are embarrassed by wearing hearing aids.
“Hearing aids shouldn’t carry a stigma like they did in the past,” stresses Long. “Today’s hearing aids are not like your grandfather’s. In fact, they are almost cool today. Kids are always wearing ear buds, and a lot of people wear in-ear Bluetooth headsets.”
Long believes the best argument for hearing aids is that loss of hearing is a quality-of-life issue.
“Hearing is part of your overall health,” she says.