About 30 percent of adults over the age of 65 struggle with hearing loss, and that percentage increases to 55 percent for adults over 80 years old.
While hearing loss itself is often not immediately life-threatening, research shows a startlingly strong correlation between hearing loss and dementia.
While aging is a risk factor for both dementia and hearing loss, medical professionals noticed that those with one ailment also tend to have the other.
Here’s an overview of the key research findings on hearing loss and dementia and what you can do to stave off the onset of dementia.
Research on Hearing Loss and Dementia
The American Medical Association Journal published the first study that revealed the startling connection between hearing loss and dementia in 1989. It found that those that had dementia also typically struggled with hearing loss.
This study led to a number of other studies that showed similar results.
More recently, Frank Lin, the director of Johns Hopkins’ Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health, found that older community-dwelling adults that suffer from hearing impairment experience cognitive decline 30-40 percent faster than those with full hearing. The study followed this group for ten plus years and found that, compared to individuals with full hearing, adults with mild, moderate, or severe hearing impairment had a two, three, and five-fold increased risk of dementia, respectively.
A 2020 study published in The Lancet Commission found similar results. In fact, it found that individuals with hearing loss are three times more likely to have dementia than those with full hearing. Additionally, hearing loss was the largest of the 12 modifying risk factors.
Why Hearing Loss and Dementia Are Linked
While there is plenty of evidence that hearing loss and dementia are linked, several different theories have arisen to explain why they are connected.
One popular theory is that hearing loss requires the brain to work much harder. The constant strain leads to early cognitive decline and therefore allows dementia to set in.
Another theory is that those with hearing loss tend to become socially isolated. Interacting in groups becomes difficult and somewhat embarrassing with hearing loss, so they ultimately just cut themselves off. Unfortunately, interacting with other people is one of the best ways to exercise the brain, and without this interaction, depression and cognitive decline can set in.
In fact, social isolation and depression are both leading risk factors of dementia for those later in life.
Finally, shrinkage in brain tissue is fast-tracked for adults with hearing loss. In fact, a hearing-impaired person’s brain tissue shrinks by a cubic centimeter more annually than those without hearing impairment.
How Hearing Aids Can Help
The good news is that if hearing impairment contributes to dementia, this factor can be controlled and mitigated. Hearing aids can’t stop you from experiencing hearing loss, though they can relieve the cognitive strain of your brain. In addition, those with hearing aids are much more likely to engage in social activities that exercise the brain and prevent cognitive decline.
If you struggle with hearing impairment, take action now to help prevent the onset of dementia by talking to an audiologist.
About the Author: Pauline Dinnauer is the VP of Audiological Care at Connect Hearing, which provides industry-leading hearing loss, hearing testing, and hearing aid consultation across the US.