According to the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), moderate to profound hearing loss can lead to self-isolation and a number of cognitive problems including depression and dementia. Recent studies suggest that two-thirds of Americans over 70 years of age will have some significant degree of hearing loss. This puts a large number of individuals at risk.
It is commonly believed that hearing loss – although troublesome – is a relatively insignificant byproduct of the aging process. However, studies conducted by otologists have concluded that hearing loss plays a crucial part in the health of the brain than previously thought.
Regardless of if you have dementia, your ability to hear is what makes your relationships happy and keeps your brain functioning normally. According to Ronna Fisher, audiologist and President of the Hearing Health Center in Chicago, hearing impairment discourages individuals from talking and other social activities. This can lead to self-isolation and a lower quality of life.
Fortunately, recent studies by Frank Lin of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, amongst others, indicate that hearing loss, if treated more aggressively with hearing aids, could help quell cognitive decline and dementia associated with aging. Although these researchers have several theories as to why hearing is connected with dementia, they have yet to prove which one is true.
In Dr. Lin’s 2013 study, he and his team watched a group of nearly 2,000 adults whose average age was 77. The study tracked these individuals for 6 years. Individuals with conversation-interfering hearing impairments were found to be 24% more likely to exhibit cognitive decline that those without substantial hearing loss. Lin and his team concluded that hearing loss can accelerate age-related cognitive decline and social isolation, a risk factor for dementia. However, Dr. Lin points out that being at an increased risk due to hearing loss does not mean that a person is certain to develop dementia. Although these trends have been found in this sample group, it is important to consider that each patient is different and to diagnose them individually.
Unfortunately, hearing aids will not be able to stall the progression of dementia onset by Alzheimer’s disease. However, research shows that the ability to hear reduces an individual’s loneliness and confusion. When an individual cannot hear as well as they used to, they become paranoid and conflicted about not being able to hear others or the world around them.
In a 2008 study, Dr. Fisher noted that when her dementia patients were fitted hearing aids for a 3 month period, their memories and social behavior improved dramatically.
This research offers hope to audiologists and doctors that attempt to cure their patients of dementia and improve their quality of life. Some professionals have suggested that treating hearing loss with hearing aids – instead of relying on drugs or cognitive-enhancing pharmaceuticals – should be the first thing doctors should focus on. “The benefits of correcting hearing loss on cognition are twice as large as the benefits from any cognitive-enhancing drugs now on the market,” said Dr. Doraiswamy.