Hearing and dementia — is there a connection? Not long ago, medical science did link these brain-related conditions and loss of hearing. More than one clinical study determined that even mild hearing loss left untreated increases a person’s chance of developing dementia.
Scientists think there is an organic link between these two somewhat unrelated medical problems. How can loss of hearing increase your risk of dementia, though and how does a hearing exam help?
What is Dementia?
The Mayo Clinic states dementia is a group of symptoms that change memory, alter the ability to think concisely and reduce socialization skills. People tend to think of Alzheimer’s disease when they hear dementia probably because it is a common form. Alzheimer’s means progressive dementia that impacts around five million people in the U.S. Today, medical science has a complete understanding of how ear health alters the risk of dementias like Alzheimer’s disease.
How Hearing Works
The ear mechanisms are very complex and each one matters when it comes to good hearing. Waves of sound go into the ear canal and are amplified as they travel toward the inner ear. Inside the labyrinth of the inner ear, tiny hair cells vibrate in response to the waves to send electrical impulses that the brain decodes.
Over time, many people develop a gradual decline in their ability to hear due to years of trauma to these delicate hair cells. The result is a reduction in the electrical impulses to the brain that makes it harder to comprehend sound.
This gradual hearing loss is sometimes considered a normal and inconsequential part of the aging process, but research indicates that’s not accurate. The brain tries to decode any messages sent by the ear even if they are garbled or unclear. That effort puts stress on the organ, making the person struggling to hear more vulnerable to dementia.
Loss of hearing is a risk factor for many diseases that lead to:
- Impaired memory
- Inability to master new tasks
- Reduction in alertness
- Overall diminished health
The risk of dementia increases based on the level of hearing loss, too. A person with mild hearing loss has double the risk. Moderate hearing loss means three times the risk and a person with severe, untreated impairment has up to five times the risk of developing dementia. A 2013 study conducted by Johns Hopkins University tracked cognitive abilities in over 2,000 older adults for six years. They found that hearing loss significant enough to interfere with conversation was 24 percent more likely to cause memory and cognitive problems.
Why a Hearing Exam Matters
Not everyone knows or appreciates how even mild hearing loss affects their health. For most, hearing loss is gradual, too, so they might not even realize there is a problem. The human brain tends to adapt as hearing declines, so it is less noticeable.
Getting comprehensive exams gives you and your primary care physician the ability to properly assess hearing health and monitor any decline as it happens. Some forms of hearing loss are a quick fix, too, during the exam. The trauma to the brain doesn’t change just because the hearing loss is due to a buildup of earwax. The faster you deal with this decline, the better the brain can adapt. That may mean getting hearing aids for some patients.
Reducing the Risk With Hearing Aids
The current hypothesis is that stress on the brain from hearing loss plays a major role in cognitive decline and different kinds of dementia. Based on that one fact, you might conclude that hearing aids reduce the risk. A hearing assistance device amplifies sound while filtering out background noise that interferes your hearing and that eases that stress. With a hearing aid, the brain will not work as hard to understand the audio messages.
People with completely normal hearing can also develop dementia. What science currently believes is that gradual hearing declines just accelerates the process, increasing the risk of cognitive problems and Alzheimer’s. The key to lowering that risk is comprehensive hearing exams to diagnose and treat age-related hearing loss before it can have an impact on brain health.