The Asbury Perspective

Hearing Loss & Brain Health

Posted in: Aging Well

seniors and hearing loss

For centuries, hearing loss has been viewed as a troublesome but not particularly troubling condition by the general public. But new research linking hearing loss to a an increased risk for cognitive declines and even dementia should move addressing this issue straight to the top of our to-do list.

Hearing loss is a fact of life for two-thirds of people over 70 years of age, and for those over 85, that number jumps to 80 percent. Another stark statistic, people wait an average of seven years after diagnosis to seek treatment.

During those years, our brain is overloaded as it struggles to decode what is being said, says Jane Gibson, R.N., Director of Operations at Springhill Senior Living in Erie, Pa. As a result, it may not be able to do some of the other work it is supposed to be doing.

Just as serious is the social isolation that often results, she points out. Those with hearing loss find it difficult to engage in conversations, and can come away feeling frustrated or even embarrassed if they misread or missed a social cue. Over time, they may choose to avoid social situations altogether. This, in turn, can lead to depression.

Level of deficit linked to level of risk

Several research studies, including one conducted in 2013 by Johns Hopkins University, bear Gibson out. The Johns Hopkins study looked at 2,000 adults with an average age of 77, charting cognitive abilities that included  memory and planning skills and concentration. At the end of six years, those who began the study with hearing loss that was severe enough to make conversation difficult were 24 percent more likely than those with normal hearing to have cognitive declines. According to the research team, hearing loss seemed to speed up age-related cognitive decline, and the more severe the loss, the greater the risk that this process would occur. Researchers are quick to point out that just showing an increased risk of developing dementia does not mean that every person will. 

Broaching a difficult topic

If you suspect someone you love has hearing loss but has not sought treatment or a hearing test, approach them with honesty and compassion, says Gibson:  “This is a very emotional issue. Tell them that you’re noticing the television turned up loud or provide a few specific examples of when they misunderstood or missed what you were saying."

Urge them to make an appointment with their primary care physician for a check-up and a referral to an audiologist. “It may not be what you think,” she notes. “It could be as simple as wax build-up in the ear.” Be sure to meet with an approved audiologist who can evaluate you for the most appropriate hearing aids for your particular need rather than someone who sells amplified receivers, she adds.

Likewise, Gibson says, if you know someone who is showing cognitive declines, be sure they have had their hearing checked.

The most important thing is to open a conversation and stick with it. “Research has found that someone who has mild hearing loss may be at two times the risk for developing dementia,” Gibson says. “If you have moderate, three times and severe, five times the risk. So that’s pretty high.”

What Can You Do to Help Someone With Hearing Loss?

Cathy Richards, director of wellness at Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, Md., prepared these tips for residents during a recent series on hearing loss and your health.

  1. Reduce background noise. Turn off the TV or move away from machinery like a dishwasher or washing machine. Lean in and create a quieter environment.
  2. Look at the person you’re talking to. Do not begin talking while coming up from behind the person or while walking away.
  3. Speak in a slow, clear and strong (but not shouting) voice. Turning up the volume is not always the answer. Sometimes, hearing loss means not being able to hear words clearly.
  4. Try to keep conversations in social situations to one speaker at a time.
  5. Understand that hearing loss is a handicap that can change how a person view's himself and provide emotional support for this change in identity.
Jane Gibson, RN

Submitted by Jane Gibson, RN

Jane Gibson is the director of operations for Springhill Senior Living, a continuing care retirement community in Erie, Pa., that is part of the Asbury system.

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