Dementia refers to a range of medical conditions that are characterized by cognitive decline which impacts the ability to navigate daily life independently. Types of dementia include: Lewy body, vascular, and Parkinson’s disease. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease which accounts for 60-80% of all cases.
Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells which affect their capacity to effectively communicate. Different parts of the brain are responsible for specific functions: memory, critical thinking, judgement, reasoning etc. So, when cells are ineffective in a particular region, the functions of that region are impacted.
Dementia is a permanent condition that often worsens over time. There is substantial research focused on identifying and mitigating possible risk factors that lead to cognitive decline. Growing studies show that treating hearing loss can help prevent or delay the development of dementia.
Understanding Hearing Loss
Nearly 1 in 8 people experience some degree of hearing loss in one or both ears. Impacting over 40 million people in the U.S., hearing loss is the third most chronic health condition that older adults navigate. There are a variety of factors that can cause hearing loss including:
– Existing medical conditions: such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity increase the risk of hearing loss.
– Genetic history: it is possible to inherit mutated genes that impact the auditory system so family history is important.
– Environmental exposure to loud noise: sound is measured in a unit referred to as decibels. Noise above 85 decibels can be potentially harmful to hearing. We can be exposed to increased levels of noise at concerts, sporting events, work etc.
Oftentimes, hearing loss happens gradually so it can be overlooked for quite some time. These factors can damage integral components of the ear that are needed for effective hearing. Most commonly, the hair cells in the inner ear are damaged. These hair cells are highly sensitive and help translate soundwaves into electrical signals for the brain to process which is how we are able to understand what we hear. Unlike other types of cells, these hair cells do not regenerate, meaning that any damage is permanent.
Link Between Hearing Loss & Dementia
Research indicates that hearing loss can contribute to cognitive decline. In one of the most significant studies, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, investigated the link between these two chronic conditions. Published in 2019, this study involved 10,107 participants who were at least 62 years old. Participants reported their hearing status as well as cognitive ability. The study found that cognitive decline was higher among people with hearing loss, specifically:
– 30% higher for people with mild hearing loss
– 42% higher for people with moderate hearing loss
– 54% higher for people with severe hearing loss
These revealing statistics also highlight that the more severe the hearing loss is, the likelier cognitive decline is. Researchers suggest a few possible ways that hearing loss triggers cognitive decline:
– Brain atrophy: specific parts of the brain are responsible for the auditory system. Hearing loss renders these parts ineffective which means they are not functioning normally. This leads to these parts of the brain not being used as much and to potentially deteriorate.
– Cognitive fatigue: the auditory system and brain often overwork in attempting to process the sound from the environment you are in. This takes disproportioned energy from your brain power and can overwhelm your cognitive abilities.
– Social withdrawal: hearing loss strains communication and often causes exhaustion which can lead people to avoid social engagement altogether. People may skip out on gatherings and spend less time with family and friends. This can contribute to anxiety, depression, and loneliness which impacts the brain.
Benefits of Treatment
Treating hearing loss is a preventative measure for developing dementia as well as protecting your overall health. The first step is to have your hearing assessed by a hearing healthcare specialist. This involves a simple process that determines any impairment, specific type, and degree of hearing loss you may be experiencing. Hearing loss is most commonly treated by hearing aids which are designed to absorb and process sound, significantly improving a person’s hearing ability. This reduces the risk of developing various medical conditions including dementia in addition to allowing you to navigate your life with greater ease!