Nearly 50 million people, globally, live with dementia. Dementia is a group of medical conditions that reduce cognitive function: critical thinking, reasoning, memory, decision making etc. Types of dementia include Lewy body, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease but the most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s accounts for 60-80% of the dementia that people experience. The number of people impacted by Alzheimer’s is projected to nearly triple, reaching 16 million, by 2050.
Dementia is an incurable condition so significant research focuses on identifying risk factors that can be addressed and treated. Increasing research investigates the relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline. Studies have shown that the two health issues are not only related by that hearing loss can contribute to cognitive decline. This critical development highlights that treating hearing loss can prevent or delay dementia.
Research: Hearing Loss & Cognitive Decline
Hearing loss and dementia are conditions that disproportionately impact older adults:
- 25% for adults ages 65-74 have hearing loss
- 50% for adults ages 75 and older have hearing loss
- 1 in 10 people age 65 and older has Alzheimer’s
As hearing loss and dementia are expected to increase and impact more people, recent research has focused on the relationship and overlap of these conditions. Various studies show that the two are significantly correlated.
In a major study published in the Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association in 2019, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School explored the relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
- Study: researchers collected data on hearing ability and cognitive function over an 8-year period. Hearing health was self-reported and cognitive capacity was measured by a questionnaire. The study included 10,107 men, 62 years old and older who at the beginning of the study, did not have cognitive concerns.
- Findings: cognitive decline was:
- 30% higher among people with mild hearing loss
- 42% higher among people with moderate hearing loss
- 54% higher among people with severe hearing loss
These significant statistics illustrate two key findings which are that hearing loss greatly increases the development of cognitive decline and that the degree of hearing loss (mild to severe) increases that risk.
Understanding the Link Between Hearing Loss & Cognitive Decline
Though continued research is needed to explicate how hearing loss contributes to cognitive decline, researchers have suggested a few theories:
- Brain Atrophy: hearing loss renders parts of the brain inactive as they are not being used effectively to process sound. Leading to a loss (or inactivity) of neurons (brain cells) which damages the connections between brain cells resulting in cognitive decline.
- Cognitive Overload: untreated hearing loss often forces people to overextend themselves in trying to hear. People often use significant energy to deal with the range of hearing loss symptoms that make communication difficult. This uses a disproportionate amount of cognitive capacity and can overload the brain, leading to cognitive decline.
- Social Withdrawal: because conversations and social engagement is much more difficult with hearing loss, people can avoid it altogether. Social withdrawal is a common impact of hearing impairment which also affects overall mental and physical health. Being less energized and stimulated affects well-being as well as cognition.
It is incredibly important to be proactive about your hearing health which not only is a preventative measure but contributes to your wellness!
Treating Hearing Loss
Addressing hearing loss is critical for the protection of your overall health. The first step is to schedule an appointment with a hearing healthcare specialist for a hearing test. Hearing tests involve a noninvasive and painless process that measures your hearing ability in both ears. This identifies any impairment, the degree, and specific type of hearing loss you may be experiencing. Fortunately, there are useful ways to treat hearing loss that result in an increased ability to hear. The most common treatment is hearing aids which are small, electronic devices designed to absorb and process sound.
There are numerous benefits of treating hearing loss including reducing your risk of developing medical conditions like dementia, enhancing communication, and improving relationships. This allows you to fully participate in all aspects of your daily life!