Hearing Loss and Dementia: Are They Related?

Most people remember seeing grandpa or grandma with a hearing aid, so they think hearing loss is a normal and natural part of aging. It’s true age-related hearing loss is very common: two-thirds of Americans over 70 experience some level of hearing loss. But hearing loss isn’t necessarily normal, and it’s definitely not harmless. In fact, research suggests there’s a connection between hearing loss and dementia.

According to a 2013 study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, people with hearing loss are 24 percent more likely to develop dementia from Alzheimer’s disease than people whose hearing remains at full function. Researchers also found the more severe a person’s hearing loss, the more likely they are to develop dementia symptoms.

Meanwhile, a French study published in 2015 found that older people with partial deafness experienced increases in their ability to think, reason, and remember when they received cochlear implants and rehabilitation treatments that improved their hearing.

“Every doctor knows that hearing loss can result in cognitive problems,” said P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D., professor of psychiatry and medicine at Duke University and co-author of the Alzheimer’s Action Plan, in an interview with AARP. “But they still don’t focus on it as a priority when they evaluate someone with suspected dementia, which is a big missed opportunity.”

The Connection Between Dementia and Hearing Loss

So, why do hearing loss and dementia seem to be linked? Researchers aren’t sure exactly why, but they have some theories.

Shifts in Brain Function

Experts suspect that when you can’t hear well, your brain spends more effort than usual trying to hear and comprehend what’s heard. Even though our brains are wonders of nature, they can only do so much at once. Spending more resources on hearing may continually drain resources away from the areas that focus on memory and cognition. Eventually, this constant drain may cause those areas to shrink and get weaker.

Lack of Stimulation

Scientists believe getting lots of mental stimulation — work, games, puzzles, conversations, art and music, anything that engages your brain — may help prevent or slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Hearing loss reduces our ability to get brain stimulation through activities like music and conversation, so this might partially explain the connection between hearing problems and dementia.

Increased Stress

Researchers already know from decades of research that stress creates physical effects on the body. When you struggle to hear, everyday situations like a simple conversation or a family gathering can become high-stress events. This constant stress can drain our energy and may create physical changes in the brain that increase our risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Disconnection From Social Support

Studies have shown that social isolation is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. People with hearing loss often withdraw socially and become isolated because of the frustration and embarrassment they experience in social situations. So, hearing loss may not directly cause dementia so much as it causes social isolation, which may then play a role in causing dementia.

The Mystery Factor

Researchers still don’t fully understand why dementia develops in some people and not others, so we can’t say for sure that hearing loss contributes to dementia at all. There may be another shared factor like genetics, environment, behavior, or heart health that plays a role in causing both hearing loss and dementia.

RELATED: Why Do People Get Dementia? Here’s What We Know

What Can I Do?

Right now, even leading experts don’t understand enough about the connection between hearing loss and dementia to say whether treatments that improve hearing, like cutting-edge hearing aids, can reduce a person’s risk for dementia.

However, hearing loss also comes with lots of other downsides besides its potential role in causing dementia. Problems with hearing can lead to depression, anxiety, social isolation, loss of balance, and even thoughts of self-harm or suicide. So, if you or someone you love struggles with hearing loss, it’s important to speak to your doctor and ask about treatments that can help.

Another way you can fight dementia is to contribute to our understanding of the factors that cause it. Boston University School of Public Health and Savonix are conducting a study to help us learn more about the factors that affect brain health as we age, and we need your help.

Called the ASSIST Study, researchers have never attempted a brain health study like it before. The goal for the three-year study is to gather data from at least 400,000 individuals, with an emphasis on diversity. By examining a larger and more diverse population than any study before it, the ASSIST Study will identify how a wide range of factors influence our risk of developing dementia and other cognitive issues.

The ASSIST Study isn’t like other medical studies, you can participate in just 45 minutes from the comfort of your home. All you need to do is visit assiststudy.org and select the “Join the Study” button.

The ASSIST Study is open to all United States residents ages 22 and older. Your health status doesn’t matter, so you can participate and provide valuable data whether you’re living with dementia or have no known medical conditions. You only need to meet one additional requirement to participate:

  • You must have an Apple iPhone® 5s or later with iOS version 11.0 or later, and you must use the Health app to track your health information

—OR—

  • You must have an Apple iPad® with iOS version 11.0 or later or an Android™ device, such as a tablet or phone, running version 6 or later

Ready to Join the ASSIST Study?

You can join the fight against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia right now. To get started, go to www.assiststudy.org and select the button, “Join the Study.” Follow the instructions and do your part today!

Join the Study


References

Griffin, K., & Bouton, K. (2013, July). Hearing loss linked to dementia. AARP. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-07-2013/hearing-loss-linked-to-dementia.html

One in 7 Americans over 70 has dementia. (2007, October 31). University of Michigan News. Retrieved from https://news.umich.edu/one-in-7-americans-over-age-70-has-dementia/

 

The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.