Hearing Loss and Dementia—Is There a Connection?

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Hearing loss is so common among the older population of America that it has become a commonly accepted comedic trope in film nowadays. Many older men turn off their hearing aids to avoid nagging older wives; older people do not hear the words of their roguish grandchildren and must shout for repetition; people mis-hear directions and end up in the precisely wrong place.

Hearing loss is not always humorous for those who suffer from it, however. It can seriously endanger your life in many ways. In fact, Katherine Griffin and Katherine Bouton, writing for AARP, note that the Hearing Loss Association of Americamaintains that hearing loss may increase risk of cognitive problems and dementia.

Dementia is a condition that is becoming more prevalent as the American population ages (20% of the American population will be over the age of 65 by 2050). Dementia is a general health term. It means that cognitive function (the ability to think, remember, regulate social behavior, etc.) has declined significantly enough to affect everyday life. It is not, in and of itself, a disease, but rather a symptom of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Frank Lin at Johns Hopkins University states that there is a link between hearing loss and dementia. Studies show that adults with normal hearing had three times less risk of experiencing cognitive issues than those with moderate (in other words, less-than-normal) hearing. For those of us who have long considered hearing loss to be a sign of aging and not a sign of other serious complications, this may come as a shock.

“aggressively treating and curing hearing loss may actually help fight against dementia and its causes.”

The good news is this: if hearing loss worsens the incidence and severity of dementia, then aggressively treating and curing hearing loss may actually help fight against dementia and its causes.

Here is what to do with this information:

  • Get screened for hearing problems before they get worse, especially if you have a family history of hearing problems or cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s. Go with family, if possible, to see if there is a genetic or hereditary component to the incidence of hearing loss.
  • Do not ignore hearing loss symptoms! The Mayo Clinic lists the following as symptoms of hearing loss. We reproduce the list here for the convenience of our readers. (The link to the Mayo Clinic list appears in our list of Sources.)
  • Muffling of speech and other sounds
  • Difficulty understanding words, especially against background noise or in a crowd of people
  • Trouble hearing consonants
  • Frequently asking others to speak more slowly, clearly and loudly
  • Needing to turn up the volume of the television or radio
  • Withdrawal from conversations
  • Avoidance of some social settings
  • Talk to your doctor about aggressively treating the problem rather than taking the least-invasive approach. Waiting to act on this may put you or your loved one more at risk for developing serious cognitive issues, especially if you or your loved one are over 65.
  • Avoid Otoxic drugs. These can increase hearing loss and are toxic to the ears. According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, high doses of aspirin as well as some antibiotics, some anti-inflammatory drugs, and others are otoxic drugs and may be harmful to hearing. Speak with your doctor about such concerns, especially if you have a family history of hearing loss and/or dementia.
  • Avoid “noise-induced hearing loss.” This is a typical cause for hearing loss in America. It is a result of repeated exposure to very loud noises, such as a jackhammer, jet engine, or even very loud music. Avoiding places or activities which expose your very sensitive ears to loud noises will help preserve your hearing for longer. (Note that this hearing loss is not due to one exposure to loud noises—this is repeated and over long periods of time. One concert will not increase your risk of dementia via hearing loss, but working construction jobs which require repeated use of a jackhammer without proper hearing protection may do so.)

 

Sources

Alzheimer’s.org. (website). What Is Dementia? Available at http://www.alz.org/what-is-dementia.asp. Retrieved 1/11/2016.

Griffin, K., & Bouton, K. (April 2015). Hearing Loss Linked to Dementia. AARP.org, http://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-07-2013/hearing-loss-linked-to-dementia.html. Retrieved 1/11/2016.

HopkinsMedicine.org. (January 22, 2014). Hearing Loss Linked to Accelerated Brain Tissue Loss. Johns Hopkins Medicine. News and Publications. Available at http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/hearing_loss_linked_to_accelerated_brain_tissue_loss_. Retrieved 1/11/2016.

Mayo Clinic. Hearing Loss: Symptoms. Available at http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hearing-loss/basics/symptoms/con-20027684. Retrieved 1/11/2016.

Hearing Loss Association of America. Prevention of Hearing Loss. Available at http://hearingloss.org/content/prevention-hearing-loss. Retrieved 1/11/2016.

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