Over the past decade, research has shown that compared to those with normal hearing, people with hearing loss have a much higher risk of developing dementia.
Increasingly, researchers are beginning to understand why. Here are three of the main theories that could explain the risk.
1. Hearing loss can lead to social isolation and loneliness.
When people with hearing loss begin to feel uncomfortable in social situations, they often cut themselves off, which can lead to loneliness, loss of engagement in cognitively stimulating activities, and depression — all of which can increase a person’s risk for dementia.
Authors Frank Lin and Nicholas Reed at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine lay out the steps to hearing health, including the benefits for your cognitive, emotional and physical well-being.
2. Hearing loss overloads the circuitry of the brain.
With hearing loss, the brain is constantly having to work harder to process the degraded sounds coming from the ear. Scientists say that when this happens, the brain may have fewer resources (brain power!) to help preserve thinking and memory abilities.
3. Hearing loss damages the brain.
Hearing loss leads to the brain being less stimulated with sound information, and this in turn appears to be linked with parts of the brain shrinking and atrophying faster from this chronic deprivation. As you can probably guess, an atrophying brain is not a good thing!
Scientists estimate that hearing loss may be the biggest potentially treatable risk factor for dementia, accounting for more cases of dementia in the world than other risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking or low education.
Hearing aids to prevent dementia?
At this point, you may be scratching your head and asking something along the lines of “Uh ... so are you telling me that people who have hearing loss are definitely going to get dementia?”
The answer to this, of course, is “No.” Hearing loss may, however, increase your risk of dementia. Researchers can’t predict the exact increase of risk for a given person.
The more important question, then, is whether strategies to address hearing loss such as hearing aids could actually help reduce someone’s risk for dementia. Scientists think this could be the case, but they don’t know yet for certain.
There is an ongoing randomized controlled trial that we’re leading in the United States funded by the National Institutes of Health, where people are randomly assigned to either get their hearing loss treated or not. We should know the results in a few years, telling us whether hearing loss treatment is linked to a reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
In the meantime, the important thing to keep in mind is that addressing hearing loss with hearing aids and other strategies comes with virtually no health risks and could only have positive upsides for your ability to communicate and engage with others and possibly even benefits for your cognitive health. The degree to which these devices and strategies may reduce your risk for dementia remains to be determined, but there are clearly no downsides to addressing your hearing loss now.
Cognition vs. Dementia
Cognition refers to your thinking and memory abilities. There are different aspects to cognition, and these include such things as processing speed (for example, how quickly you can sort a deck of cards), memory, math-related skills and verbal language ability (for instance, being able to understand a complex written passage). As we age, it’s normal for our ability in some of these areas to decline, while others stay the same or even improve. We may never seem to remember where we placed our keys but have absolutely no problem reading a dense history book or medical journal.
Dementia is definitely not normal and reflects when someone’s cognitive abilities have gotten to the point that the person can no longer independently do his or her typical daily activities, such as cooking meals and shopping. A lot of factors may contribute to dementia risk over time, and two of the most important causes of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular disease. Both of these conditions can damage the brain over time.
Copyright © 2022 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Adapted with permission from AARP’s Hearing Loss for Dummies by Frank Lin, MD, and Nicholas Reed, AuD, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.