Is Hearing Loss an Early Sign of Dementia?

Is Hearing Loss an Early Sign of Dementia? Image

Research finds that hearing loss and cognitive decline are linked. Learn more about how hearing loss affects dementia and what to do about it. Hearing loss can be a frustrating experience that can negatively impact a person's quality of life. Nearly half of people over age 60 have hearing loss. There is concern that hearing loss can lead to other health problems as well. Research shows

Hearing loss can be a frustrating experience that can negatively impact a person's quality of life. Nearly half of people over age 60 have hearing loss. There is concern that hearing loss can lead to other health problems as well. Research shows that hearing loss is a risk factor for dementia, especially for patients between 45 and 64 years old.

This article discusses the connection between hearing and memory loss, risk factors, prevention, and when to see a healthcare provider.

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Hearing Loss and Memory Loss

There is increasing evidence of a connection between hearing loss and memory loss. One recent study found that mild hearing loss doubled the risk of dementia, moderate loss tripled the risk, and people with severe hearing loss were 5 times more likely to develop dementia than those without hearing loss.

Another review of studies evaluating the link between hearing loss and dementia found a connection as well. Although each of the studies used different evaluation methods, they found that hearing loss is clearly associated with a higher incidence of dementia in older adults.

Dementia is a term used to describe the decline of memory, problem-solving, language, and other cognitive abilities. These can become so severe that they interfere with daily life. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer's disease.

Some symptoms of dementia include:

  • Short-term memory loss
  • Difficulty remembering appointments and tasks
  • Wandering off in thought and not remembering why
  • Forgetting to plan or eat meals
  • Forgetting to pay bills

Some experts believe that hearing loss may lead to memory loss or other cognitive issues due to reduced activity and degeneration of the brain's auditory centers.

Alzheimer’s Risk Factors

Alzheimer's disease accounts for 60%–80% of all dementia cases. It is not a normal part of aging.

Alzheimer's is progressive, meaning that it worsens over time. It can start with mild symptoms, but as it advances to later stages, the illness causes people to become unaware of their environment or not be able to carry on a conversation.

Risk factors for Alzheimer's include:

  • Older age
  • Familial inheritance
  • Having had a traumatic brain injury (an injury that causes brain dysfunction)
  • Vascular disease (abnormal condition of the blood vessels)
  • Infection or immune system deficiencies
  • Environmental stress

Age Is a Significant Risk Factor

The most significant risk factor for Alzheimer's disease is advancing age. Most people diagnosed with Alzheimer's are over 65. However, it can affect younger people.

Hearing Loss

Hearing loss that occurs with older age is called presbycusis. It is one of the most common health conditions affecting people as they age.

The cause of age-related hearing loss is most commonly due to changes in the inner ear over time. It can also stem from other issues that interfere with nerve pathways from the ear to the brain.

Some of the health conditions that are more common in older people, such as diabetes, stroke, or high blood pressure, can also contribute to hearing loss.

Hearing loss in older adults can cause problems such as:

  • Difficulty communicating with loved ones, leading to feelings of isolation
  • Being unable to hear notifications like doorbells, alarms, or smartphones
  • Not understanding a healthcare provider or caregiver's instructions

Social Isolation

Hearing loss is a significant contributor to social isolation in older adults. The worse the hearing loss, the more socially isolated people may feel.

If you or a loved one is experiencing social isolation due to hearing loss, talk to your healthcare provider about a treatment plan that can help.

Treatment

Age-related hearing loss is not reversible. But, fortunately, there are treatments such as hearing aids available to improve hearing.

One study identified that treating hearing loss is a potentially modifiable risk factor for developing dementia. However, it may also be possible that people prone to dementia are at higher risk for hearing loss.

Hearing Aids

Hearing aids are small electronic devices worn in or around the ear. These devices can help people with hearing loss participate more actively in their lives and maintain better social networks.

Most hearing aids contain a microphone, an amplifier, and a speaker. They make it easier for the hearing impaired to understand what is happening around them. Unfortunately, many people who could benefit from using hearing aids don't use them.

Different styles of hearing aids include:

  • Behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aids
  • Inside-the-ear (ITE) hearing aids
  • Canal hearing aids, which fit inside the ear

Hearing aids can work one of two ways:

  • Analog: This type of aid converts sound waves into electrical signals, which are amplified.
  • Digital: This type of hearing aid converts sound waves into numeral codes, then amplifies them. 

You will need to work with an audiologist (a professional who specializes in hearing health) in get hearing aids. An audiologist will determine what type is right for you. Things to consider include:

  • Your lifestyle
  • The type of hearing loss you have
  • How severe your hearing loss is
  • Whether the hearing loss is in one or both ears
  • Cost (hearing aids can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars)

Prevention

There are many ways to prevent noise-related hearing loss that can contribute to age-related hearing loss. Talk to your healthcare provider about how loud noise exposure can cause permanent hearing loss and how you can protect your hearing.

Some ways to prevent noise-related hearing loss are:

  • Avoid noisy places.
  • Use earplugs or noise-canceling headphones when in loud spaces.
  • Watch television and listen to music at a lower volume.
  • Get regular hearing checks.

Some of the risk factors for dementia, such as having a family history, are not preventable. However, other lifestyle changes may prevent the onset of dementia.

Some ways to decrease the risk of dementia and other cognitive issues include:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Quitting smoking
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Having good social connections
  • Stimulating your brain by reading or other sources such as crossword puzzles
  • Preventing head injuries by wearing a seat belt and using a helmet during sports

When to See a Healthcare Provider

It's essential to have regular check-ups with your healthcare provider to monitor your physical and mental health.

If you find that you are having trouble understanding the people around you, or it seems like people are mumbling their words, you should make an appointment to check your hearing.

You may need to see your healthcare provider for a referral to an audiologist or otolaryngologist (a doctor who specializes in ear, nose, and throat conditions). They can perform a hearing test and assess the type and severity of hearing loss.

Summary

Increasing evidence suggests a connection between hearing loss and dementia. Some research also suggests that hearing loss is a modifiable risk factor for dementia. Although hearing loss is not reversible in most cases, some treatments, such as hearing aids, can help you hear better and improve communication with those around you.

A Word From Verywell

Though it may take time to feel comfortable wearing a hearing aid, it can significantly improve your quality of life by increasing your awareness of what is going on around you, improving communication with friends and family, and possibly reducing your risk of developing dementia.

Talk to your healthcare provider about ways to prevent noise-related hearing loss, as well as lifestyle changes you can make to prevent the onset of dementia. If you think you or a loved one is experiencing hearing loss, make an appointment for a hearing test.

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