Dementia and Hearing Loss: The Complex Connection 

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Many people experience hearing loss as they age. According to healthcare professionals at UCLA Health, hearing loss affects about one-third of all adults between 65 and 74, and around half of those over 75. While hearing loss alone can make aging more difficult, several studies have found that aging adults with more severe hearing loss are more susceptible to dementia. For this reason, older adults experiencing some hearing loss should seek treatment. Learn more about hearing loss and its relationship to dementia to protect brain health. 

The Dementia-Hearing Loss Relationship 

Although the exact relationship between hearing loss and dementia remains unclear, doctors and medical researchers have discovered that people with hearing loss tend to have more dementia. Whether or not hearing loss causes dementia, or vice versa, is yet to be determined.

One of the main theories behind the dementia-hearing loss connection is loneliness and social isolation. A study from National Institutes of Health (NIH) indicates that social isolation is a common health concern affecting 24% of older adults. This isolation is often the result of hearing loss. 

When a person cannot hear as well as they once did, their ability to connect with others wanes. Individuals may find themselves surrounded by family but unable to hear conversations, preventing them from participating. Over time, hearing loss can keep a person from wanting to be around others as often. 

The link between social isolation and cognitive decline has long been understood. A recent study from John Hopkins Medicine found that the risk of developing dementia was 27% higher among socially isolated older adults compared to those not socially isolated. 

Untreated Hearing Loss and Cognitive Health 

Beyond increasing the likelihood of loneliness and social isolation, hearing loss has other implications for cognitive decline if left untreated. The ear has two primary functions — hearing and balance. Auditory processing (hearing) is a person’s ability to perceive and give meaning to sound. The auditory system involves several parts, including the outer, inner, and middle ear, as well as the auditory nervous system. Each part must function properly for optimal hearing. 

The natural decline of hearing due to age can strain the ears and brain. Untreated hearing loss makes the brain work harder to process speech and sound. Additionally, the social isolation that results from not being able to communicate as easily with others can shrink brain cells, including those involved in auditory processing. 

Another concern is balance. The inner ear plays in role in keeping the body balanced by sending signals to the muscles. Hearing loss muffles these signals, which can impede the mental processing involved in maintaining balance and coordination. As a result, walking becomes less safe.

Recognizing Early Signs 

Many situations can lead to hearing loss, such as being diagnosed with a cardiovascular disease, experiencing trauma, taking certain medications, and even having a buildup of earwax. As such, distinguishing between hearing loss caused by these factors and hearing loss caused by dementia is challenging. 

Older adults or family members who notice hearing loss should consult their doctors about regular hearing tests. This can help a provider determine the patient’s risk for dementia, or if the patient has already been diagnosed with dementia, figure out how the disease has affected their hearing. 

Some early signs of hearing loss related to dementia include getting confused when talking or being unable to follow along with the conversation. Other possible indications of hearing loss include: 

  • Speech and sounds are muted 
  • Increased difficulty hearing in noisy places like restaurants 
  • Trouble perceiving speech over the phone 
  • Trouble differentiating between consonants 
  • Frequently asking others to speak more loudly and slowly 
  • Turning up the volume on the TV or a computer 
  • Difficulty hearing high-pitched noises 

The Role of Hearing Health 

Managing hearing loss and dementia is challenging, but older adults and their caregivers and family members can take proactive steps to preserve hearing and brain health. Communication strategies individuals with hearing loss can adopt include: 

  • Watch for gestures, expressions, and visual cues during conversations
  • Ask clarifying questions to ensure they understand the person 
  • Concentrate on the speaker and read their lips if necessary 
  • Share with loved ones and caregivers the best way to communicate
  • Use closed captioning when watching TV or viewing video content online 

Best practices for caregivers and family members include: 

  • Ask the individual the best way to communicate before having a conversation 
  • Search for a quiet space with good lighting to sit in public places 
  • Speak clearly and slowly 
  • Avoid shouting
  • Indicate a change in topic 
  • Maintain a compassionate, understanding attitude 

In addition to these communication strategies, patients can ask their doctors about regular hearing tests. They may also consider hearing aids to safeguard against cognitive decline. Research from John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health claims that the likelihood of developing dementia is lower among those using hearing aids

Some people may be uncomfortable about getting hearing aids. These devices effectively compensate for hearing loss, but they cannot reproduce natural hearing. It will take time for users to adjust to using hearing aids, sometimes several months. Getting acclimated poses challenges of its own, but older adults will find the preventive measure worth it to reduce the possibility of cognitive decline. 

Another common audiological intervention is cochlear implants. These devices are designed for individuals with inner damage that cannot be remedied with hearing aids. They electronically stimulate the inner ears, emitting signals the brain interprets as sound.

Take the Step Toward Better Brain Health at Happy Ears 

Research is ongoing into the relationship between hearing loss and dementia, but the link is there. To protect cognitive function, older adults should undergo regular hearing tests and develop communication strategies to avoid social isolation. 

Happy Ears provides Cognivue, an advanced cognitive screening test, to patients in the greater Phoenix, Arizona area. Cognivue evaluates aspects of cognitive function related to hearing, including memory, visuospatial ability, and executive function. It also considers processing speed and reaction time. 

Cognivue is just one of many audiology services the compassionate team of audiologists at Happy Ears provides to help diagnose and treat hearing loss and other conditions. For more information about the complex connection between hearing loss and dementia, cognitive screening, and other services, contact us today to speak with a licensed audiologist.