Dementia and Hearing Loss
More and more studies are showing that older adults who have a loss of hearing are at increased risk of developing dementia, and/or Alzheimer disease. Studies also show that the risk for developing dementia increases significantly as hearing loss becomes worse. Several studies have been conducted with the express intention of exploring potential solutions for the soaring incidence of dementia, with estimates now predicting that more than 100 million people will be affected globally, when the year 2050 is reached.
Researchers claim that any kind of interventions which would have the effect of deferring the onset of dementia by as little as a single year, could lead to at least a 10% decrease in the widespread occurrence of the disease over the next four decades. The problem with that is that a great deal more research is necessary before those potential interventions can be identified, since at present, there is very little evidence that interventions can be beneficial in this area.
The reason that the concept of interventions is so appealing to medical personnel is because of the universal understanding that dementia would be far easier to prevent than it is to cure or reverse. It is known that people are more likely to develop dementia when they have relatively little participation in leisure activities or any kind of social interactions.
Other risk factors for developing dementia occur in people who are relatively sedentary, or those who develop diabetes mellitus. It’s also known that one of the most prevalent reasons for elderly people not participating in social events and activities is that they have experienced some level of hearing loss, and are reluctant to become involved, because of the potential for embarrassment.
Testing for Hearing Loss
Given the fact that hearing loss is one of the precursors to social disengagement, and that social disengagement is a precursor to dementia, researchers have considered it very important to explore the causes of hearing loss. A landmark study conducted by Dr. Frank R Lin of Johns Hopkins Medical Institution has examined the effects of hearing loss on almost 700 people aged between 36 and 90, none of whom had dementia when the study began.
Participants were all required to undergo cognitive and hearing tests for approximately five years beginning in 1990, and were re-tested in the year 2008 for the possibility of having developed dementia or Alzheimer’s. Of all the participants in the program, almost 200 had some level of hearing loss when the study began.
When participants were re-tested more than a decade later, 58 of them had full-blown dementia, including 37 who had Alzheimer’s disease. The precise statistics taken during the study indicated that the risk for dementia increased significantly for participants who had at least a 25 dB hearing loss, and the dementia risk escalated right along with the level of hearing loss. In effect, those participants who had the worst level of hearing loss were also those most likely to be diagnosed with dementia.
Particularly for the study participants who were older than 60, there was a 37% risk of developing dementia which was linked to hearing loss. A strong correlation was found between the level of hearing loss and the likelihood of diagnosing dementia in these older citizens, and it was found that for every 10 dB more of hearing loss, the increased risk of developing dementia went up by 20%.
The Link between Dementia and Hearing Loss
The clear association between hearing loss and dementia found in this study and others conducted afterward, show that there is at least a possibility there is a common cause which underlies both conditions. Some scientists and medical personnel theorize that the link between the two stems from the fact that the more profound hearing loss is in an individual, the more likely that individual is to avoid social interaction.
When social interaction is avoided to a significant degree, and borders on isolation, the risk factors for developing dementia rise dramatically. This has led scientists to consider the possibility of experimenting with an intervention to improve the hearing of senior citizens at the earliest stage possible, so that no further damage occurs to hearing, and so hearing loss does not worsen.
There will undoubtedly be studies in the near future which explore the connection between a hearing loss intervention and the possible reduced risk of developing dementia. It’s entirely possible that by early detection of hearing problems in seniors, and taking aggressive corrective measures, the risk of developing dementia can be significantly reduced.
This is a tantalizing proposition, because hearing loss in most cases is a very preventable condition, and it can be effectively addressed using modern technology such as hearing aids or cochlear implants. Rehabilitative interventions might also be implemented which would create social environments that are optimal for better hearing, so that seniors would have few reservations about participating.
If this theory is found to have relevance and accuracy, it may represent one of the very best ways of intervening to reduce the runaway development of dementia in the elderly. At present however, this must remain in the realm of conjecture and theory, and it will be necessary for scientific study and research to establish the accuracy of the theory.