May 25th, 2024

Studies suggest hearing loss and dementia may be connected


By Delon Shurtz - Lethbridge Herald on May 10, 2024.

Herald photo by Delon Shurtz Audiologist Glenn Hole explains the association between hearing loss and dementia during a session of the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDdshurtz@lethbridgeherald.com

The jury may still be out, but research seems to indicate hearing loss and cognitive health is likely connected.

A study more than a decade ago involving about 630 participants revealed that hearing loss seemed to be independently associated with dementia, but it was unclear at the time if hearing loss is a true marker for early stage dementia or if it’s a modifiable risk; something that can be changed and maybe even prevented.

Since that study, the interest in the connection between hearing loss and cognitive health and the number of related studies has grown, and Thursday during a session of the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs, audiologist Glenn Hole suggested the connection is very real.

“Hearing impairment may reflect the risk of cognitive decline and dementia as it’s related to brain atrophy,” Hole said.

He said markers used to determine if someone might be showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease also indicate a connection.

“Those seem to be appearing in the brains of people with untreated hearing loss. And we’re seeing cognitive decline; we’re seeing brain atrophy, as well.”

A larger study in 2021 also found that hearing loss was independently associated with dementia and hearing loss may increase the risk of dementia in adult populations. And an even more recent study suggests the same thing, that hearing loss “was associated again with cognitive decline in all domains.”

Hole said dementia is different from the signs of normal aging, like someone forgetting why he or she walked into a room, or where they put their car keys. Dementia, on the other hand, is used to describe different, additional challenges, even mild cognitive decline.

Issues like occasional forgetfulness and slight difficulty with inattention are normal signs of aging, while mild cognitive decline may cause difficulty recalling information that was easy to recall previously, or finding words or struggling with tasks that were once easy.

Dementia makes daily activities difficult beyond the range of mild cognitive decline.

“You might have trouble carrying on a conversation. You might be seen as somebody that could occasionally have unusual behaviours; that might be a sign that somebody notices. Personality changes, balance issues and coordination difficulties, and repeating stories may also be signs of dementia.

Hole points out dementia is predicted to double every 20 years, and by 2050 more than one hundred million people – one in 85 people – will be affected worldwide.

The symptoms of untreated hearing loss mimic many of the symptoms of cognitive decline, but for different reasons. If someone can’t hear what’s going on, that could lead to inattention, forgetfulness, and difficulty understanding conversations, but not because of cognitive decline.

Hearing loss, Hole adds, can also lead to anxiety, depression, feelings of paranoia, embarrassment, and loss of self esteem.

Hole says the impact hearing loss has on dementia is greater than traumatic brain injury, hypertension, alcohol consumption, obesity, smoking, depression, isolation, inactivity and diabetes.

The good news is that the risk percentage of getting dementia can be reduced.

“Forty per cent of the risk of dementia you can modify.”

Reducing the risk of dementia goes beyond just hearing, Hole says. He says it’s also about a quality social life and general good health practices.

“Get fresh air, keep learning and socializing. Socialization is like mental arithmetic for your brain that is fun.”

Hole adds, however, all that is hard to do with hearing loss, and he urges people experiencing hearing loss to have their hearing tested. And if they require hearing aids, make sure they are fitted and working properly. Hole says about 70 per cent of hearing aids are not properly fitted.

“There are a lot of hearing aids out there that need to be done better. If you’re struggling with yours, go to your provider and make sure that they’re using best practices, because there’s no point in using a hearing aid if people throw them in a drawer if they don’t help.”

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