How many times have you heard someone say, “I’d love to live to 100 or more — if I had my wits about me!” Fear of dementia is something that worries most everyone at some time or another — me included — because there seems so little to do to treat or avoid it. But now researchers have discovered a fascinating link between dementia and hearing loss — and that link may offer helpful strategies for all of us concerned about our wits…

Greater Hearing Loss = Greater Risk of Dementia

First let’s look at the study, which took place in Baltimore at the National Institute on Aging. Johns Hopkins assistant professor of otology Frank R. Lin, MD, PhD, and his colleagues followed more than 600 adults between the ages of 36 and 90 for approximately 12 years. None of these people had had dementia, but about 25% had some level of hearing loss at the beginning of the study. Over time, 9% developed dementia — with two-thirds of these having Alzheimer’s.
In analyzing their data, Dr. Lin and his colleagues discovered that participants who had hearing loss at the beginning of the study were significantly more likely than the others to develop dementia. Specifically, they found that the risk for dementia increased even in those with only mild hearing loss (25 decibels) and rose further as hearing worsened. In fact, for each 10 decibels of hearing loss, there was a 20% jump in dementia risk!
So does hearing loss cause dementia? I phoned Dr. Lin to explore his findings — and there is a link, he told me. “There are three different pathways through which hearing loss may contribute to dementia,” he said. These are…
  • A common brain pathology. To some extent, basic neuronal aging in the brain may lie at the root of both hearing loss and dementia — in which case, there is little we can do to improve the symptoms that a patient is struggling with. But as you’ll see in the instances below, there are indeed chances for significant improvement.
  • Hearing loss itself. Dr. Lin and his research team speculate that for people with hearing loss, the strain of decoding ill-heard messages over the years puts a load on the brain that may lead to cognitive decline. Your brain might be compelled to reallocate vital resources to help with hearing at the expense of cognition, exhausting your cognitive reserve, Dr. Lin said. “That may explain in part why straining to hear conversations over background noise in a loud restaurant can be mentally exhausting for anyone, hard of hearing or not,” he added.
  • Social isolation. Hearing loss often triggers social inactivity, which is itself strongly associated with dementia. In an unrelated 2011 study at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, investigators found that older adults (average age 80) who enjoyed the highest level of social interaction had only one-quarter the level of cognitive decline experienced by the least social individuals.
When we address the problems of hearing loss and social isolation, we could possibly affect the second two pathways and potentially delay the onset of dementia, Dr. Lin observed. These findings were published in the February 2011 issue of Archives of Neurology.

Reduce Your Risk for Dementia

Interventions that slow dementia even by just one year could lead to a 10% drop in its prevalence over the coming decades, say researchers. While further study is necessary to identify which interventions are most effective, many are dictated by common sense…
Get a hearing aid. If you have difficulty hearing, the Johns Hopkins study gives you a powerful new reason not to ignore it out of stubbornness or vanity, as many people do. Today’s digital hearing aids not only offer much better sound quality than previous technology, they also can be quite small and discrete.
Learn to use your hearing aid properly. At the audiologist’s office, practice putting in and taking out your hearing aid… cleaning it… replacing batteries… and adjusting volume. Continue to work with your audiologist until you feel comfortable and satisfied. Your audiologist will also help you tune your hearing aid for your specific needs.
Take advantage of other hearing assistance. Use the hearing-assistance systems now available in many concert halls, theaters, museums and places of worship… and choose telephones (home, cell and office) with built-in amplifiers. There are many models available now.
Socialize your way to a sharper brain. Visit friends and family, attend parties, join a book or bridge club, volunteer and/or attend religious services. The latest research suggests that socializing is just as important — and maybe even more important — in keeping your mind sharp than solitary brainteasers like crossword puzzles.
“A lot of people ignore hearing loss because it’s a slow and insidious process as we age,” Lin told me. But even if it creeps up on you, chances are that deep down you know that your hearing isn’t what it should be. If that describes you, let your doctor know, and take care of your hearing to take care of your brain!