Have you noticed that with each passing birthday, you have to raise the volume on your TV in order to hear the news anchor?
Are you suddenly struggling to catch the waiter’s recitation of the daily specials at your favorite restaurant?
If so, you may be suffering from age related hearing loss.
And if you thought that this is nothing to worry about, you need to know that even mild age related hearing loss is an independent risk factor for developing dementia.
In a paper published online in the February issue of JAMA, principal investigator Frank R. Lin, MD, PhD from The Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health and his colleagues found that people who developed hearing loss as they aged had statistically significant loss in their cognitive (thinking) function as compared with people with normal hearing.
Almost 2000 patients ages 75 to 74 with normal brain function at the start of the study were followed over a 6 year period.
In addition to hearing tests, each was given two brain tests; one at the beginning of the study asked them to memorize words, follow commands and answer questions about year, date and time. The other test timed them on how long it took to match numbers to symbols. Both cognitive tests and hearing tests were repeated three more times to gauge decline.
The specific mechanisms underlying the association between hearing loss and dementia are unknown, but its effects on impaired verbal communication and reduced social engagement are commonly accepted. Lin postulates when someone speaks to an individual with hearing loss - especially in a noisy environment- the brain has to struggle to sort out words from all the extraneous sounds, making it more difficult for it to access memory stores for a response. He calls this “cognitive overload”.
Whether Lin’s theory is correct will require future research, but we do know that as people start to experience memory loss and thinking problems, they tend to become more and more socially isolated and social isolation is itself a key factor in increased morbidity and mortality among older adults.
Current studies have not yet shown that correcting hearing loss necessarily prevents or even forestalls dementia. However, improving hearing with hearing aids can certainly reduce the barriers to social interaction.
What’s surprising is that while it is estimated that over 30 million adults in the US have some hearing loss including one of three people over 65, fewer than 15 percent use hearing aids.
Hearing loss is a major public health issue that is the third most common physical condition after arthritis and heart disease. Given that 7 million people in the US have some form of dementia today and numbers are expected to double every 20 years, the association of hearing loss and dementia, should make this kind of research a priority.
In the meantime, get your hearing tested.
Unlike the situation years ago, today just about everyone with any type or degree of hearing loss can be helped with some kind of hearing assistive technology – whether it be hearing aids, cochlear implants, other implantable devices, assistive listening devices, or captioning.
If you are told there is nothing you can do and you should just learn to live with the hearing loss, seek a second opinion.