Hearing Loss & Brain Health
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 an increased risk for cognitive declines and even dementia should move to address 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 decide what is being said, says Jane Gibson, R.N., Executive Director of Asbury community Springhill Senior Living. 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.
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.
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.”