Almost 3/4 of adults older than 70 have some form of hearing loss. It effects about 37.5 million Americans, yet most people don’t do anything about it. Among those younger than 70, fewer than one in five use hearing aids. Those older than 70 aren’t much better with only 1 in 3 using these devices.
When hearing starts to go, many people feel they are losing their memory. Research shows that more than half of people who see their doctor about memory concerns have a hearing problem. Even though these people may not have any memory loss, hearing difficulty can be a precursor for a decline in memory and thinking skills.
In a study that followed 1,164 adults (average age 73) for 24 years, 70% had some degree of hearing impairment at the start of the study. Follow up consisted of these adults taking tests of their brain function. Those with severe hearing loss since the start of the study got the lowest scores on the test. Any hearing difficulty was linked to a quicker decline in thinking than those whose hearing held steady, but education helped make up for mild impairment. Another study of older adults indicated that those that had even minor loss were twice as likely as their fully hearing peers to have signs and symptoms of depression.
Another important development of this last year according to Keith Fargo, PhD, director of scientific programs and outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association, is that hearing loss has been added to the list of significant modifiable risk factors for dementia. We don’t really know what links hearing loss to dementia but it is speculated that hearing problems force the brain to work harder to understand what’s being said. Over time, that extra burden may cause harm. The other theory is that dementia may come from social isolation. If your poor hearing does not allow you to socialize and participate fully in conversations, you may lose the brain benefits that come from that type of mental stimulation.
As with sleep, it’s not yet known whether correcting hearing loss (with hearing aids) will reduce the risk of dementia. But most hearing loss occurs outside the brain and is not related to the brain at all. Mental stimulation and socialization is huge and appears to offer protection against dementia.
The good news is that age-related hearing loss is reversible. Hearing aids can help. The problem has been cost, lack of insurance coverage for hearing devices and a required medical appointment that has kept people from pursuing treatment. A new federal law is designed to bring lower-cost, over-the-counter hearing aids to market by the end of 2020. Preliminary studies have shown that these devices available under the new law are just as good and work just as well as their more expensive prescription counterparts.
Reference: Collins, S. “The latest: New research on hearing loss”. WebMD, June 2019, p. 67.
McMillen, M. “Guarding the mind: The latest research points to ways you can lower your odds of developing dementia”. WebMD, June 2019, p. 50-53.Photo by The U.S. National Archives