May/Jun
2017

Did You Say Something? Dementia or Hearing Loss

Written by Dr. Amy Swain, Audiologist
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Summertime brings family members together for reunions, weddings and graduation parties. During these events, we might notice our parents aging and sense some changes in their cognition or memory. You may begin to wonder if they have a memory issue. Researchers are now saying we should not assume it is a memory issue because it is possible they just didn’t hear the whole conversation.

LINK BETWEEN ALZHEIMER’S AND HEARING LOSS

Many studies show a link between Alzheimer’s disease and hearing loss. The reality is that hearing loss has a bigger impact on our health than we realize.

Frank Lin, otolaryngologist and epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, has completed multiple studies that reveal the link between cognitive decline and hearing loss. In his 2011 study, results showed that seniors with hearing loss were significantly more likely to develop dementia than their counterparts who had normal hearing. The reason for the link is unknown, but researchers have suggested that dementia and hearing loss might have a common underlying pathology. Dementia may be exacerbated for seniors with hearing loss because it takes more effort for that individual to hear and understand conversations, putting more stress on the brain.  

Severe hearing loss can cause depression, anxiety, paranoia and isolation. Together, these factors can have a negative effect on our overall health. People with hearing loss not only have more cognitive decline, but they also have a tendency to be hospitalized more often because of other health issues and even tend to fall more than their peers with normal hearing. Additionally, gait and balance are already cognitively demanding, and adding the disability of hearing loss can over-tax the brain.

Another study at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 2014 found that the shrinkage of the brain as we age is accelerated when an individual has hearing loss. Brain atrophy is the damaging of connections between the brain cells or loss of cells in general, which can be greatly impacted by hearing loss. 

TREATING HEARING LOSS

The majority of the time the best treatment for hearing loss is the use of hearing instruments. It is important to get a hearing aid sooner than later because while a hearing aid won’t prevent further hearing loss, it can help to prevent auditory deprivation, which can impair your brain’s ability to process sounds properly. 

Hearing aids improve the quality of life for many people by allowing them to participate in conversations and help them hear the sounds of their environment. With the realization that our hearing can affect our overall health, many hearing aid manufacturers are trying to help alleviate the burden that hearing loss can put on our brains. Oticon is a hearing aid manufacturer that has been around for years, and in the past year, they have been focusing their attention on BrainHearing technology. This technology not only “improves speech understanding but reduces the effort demanded to understand speech. The reduction in effort means cognitive resources are freed up and can be used for other cognitive tasks, such as remembering conversations,” according to Oticon OPN White Paper 2016.

No matter what the cause, scientists are trying to figure out a way to prevent or slow the progression of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Could it be as simple as a hearing aid to put less stress on our brains and therefore help to prevent cognitive decline? 

If you or your loved one suspects that you are having problems with your memory, have your hearing tested. Hearing properly can benefit your physical and mental health.

Dr. Amy Swain is a member of the Minnesota Academy of Audiology as well as a fellow member of the American Academy of Audiology.

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