People who have a hard time hearing can't follow conversations or respond to questions. They feel frustrated and embarrassed and tend to avoid socializing. And previous research has linked isolation with a higher risk of dementia.
Or, Lin says, it may be a combination of the neurological stress and social isolation.
Either way, this study may prompt men and women to pay more attention to hearing loss, a condition that affects more than 9 million Americans over the age of 65, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
Lin says people don't tend to give hearing loss the same kind of attention they give high blood pressure or heart disease. Instead, they accept hearing loss as an inevitable part of aging. But, says Lin, it may be time to take a more serious look at the condition.
Will hearing aids help?
Luigi Ferrucci, M.D., chief of the Longitudinal Studies Section at the National Institutes on Aging and another of the study authors, says it's not yet time to recommend widespread action, but researchers have important questions to answer, including: If we cure hearing loss, are we going to prevent dementia? And can hearing aids make a difference?
Even if treating hearing loss only delayed dementia, that alone could have enormous consequences, researchers say.
This study didn't find that hearing aids decreased the risk of dementia, but volunteers in the study only reported whether or not they had hearing aids, not how often they used them or how effective they were.
In June, Johns Hopkins researchers will begin a study to determine whether hearing aids or cochlear implants can lower the risk of dementia. Those results, however, won't be available for several years. Meanwhile, Ferrucci says, he and his colleagues are studying brain scans of people with hearing loss to look for connections between the two.
Elizabeth Agnvall is a contributing editor at the AARP Bulletin.