by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
October 12, 2011
A recent study on the effects of hearing loss and dementia is scaring a lot of hard of hearing people.
For example one recent article opened with, “Older people with hearing loss are at a much greater risk for developing dementia over time than those who can hear well, according to a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the National Institute on Aging.” (1)
Is this really true? Are we hard of hearing people soon going to be assigned to the Alzheimer’s ward just because we can’t hear well? I don’t think so. I think we need to look a bit closer at this study and its results.
This study took place in Baltimore at the National Institute on Aging. Johns Hopkins assistant professor of otology Frank R. Lin, MD, PhD, and his colleagues followed 639 people between the ages of 36 and 90 in this 12-year study. At the start of this study, 125 people had mild hearing losses, 53 had moderate losses and only 6 had severe losses. By the end of this study, 58 people had been diagnosed with dementia. (2) That’s the background.
Now the findings. “By cross-referencing their data, the researchers found that mild hearing loss was linked to a slight increase in dementia risk, but the risk increased noticeably among those with moderate and severe hearing loss.
For participants 60 and older, more than 36 percent of dementia risk was linked to hearing loss, the study said.
The worse the hearing loss, the worse the risk for Alzheimer’s as well. For every additional loss of 10 decibels of hearing capacity, Alzheimer’s risk appeared to go up by 20 percent, the researchers said.” (2)
If these research results are true, it does indeed sound bad for all of us with hearing loss. However, I think the researchers need to answer the following questions before they accept these study results as gospel. For example:
- How long did the people with hearing loss have their hearing losses? Were they born with a severe loss like I was, or did they lose their hearing from taking ototoxic drugs (which could have damaged the workings of their brains at the same time) or did their hearing loss show up gradually as a result of aging?
- Were the people with hearing loss aging faster than normal? For example, some people look like they’re 90 when they’re only 60. For such people you could expect dementia and early-onset hearing loss to show up earlier too. Conversely, some people that are really 90 only look 60 years old. Is their hearing also commensurate with their apparent age (60) rather than their real age (90)?
- How well were the hard of hearing people who developed dementia coping with their hearing losses before they developed dementia? Were they the ones noted for denying their hearing losses and thus doing nothing about correcting their losses? In contrast, was there a difference in the rate of dementia among those who wore hearing aids, used assistive listening devices and otherwise practiced good hearing loss coping strategies?
- Did dementia occur more often in those with hearing loss that basically withdrew from social intercourse than in those that retained an active social life in spite of their hearing losses?
These are the kinds of questions that researchers need to answer before you worry that dementia is in your future because you already have a hearing loss.
In any case, if you want to be proactive and try to stave off dementia, consider the following:
- Your lifestyle: Are you doing what you can to maintain good health—physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually? If not, that’s the place to start.
- Your hearing health: Have you done all that you can to successfully live with your hearing loss? This includes:
- Getting and wearing properly-fitted hearing aids.
- Supplementing your hearing aids with assistive listening devices (ALDs) in situations where hearing aids are not very effective. (Noise and distance are the two main enemies of hearing aids.)
- Learning and practicing good hearing loss coping strategies including speechreading and assertively advocating for your hearing needs.
- Use it or lose it: Keep socially, mentally and physically active.
- Your drug usage: Take only the drugs that are truly necessary. Many seniors take numerous drugs unnecessarily according to Drs. Wolfe and Abramson. Did you know that many of the drugs you take can negatively affect your mental status as well as your hearing?
There are no guarantees, but if you are effectively addressing the above points, I think you’ll discover that you have greatly reduced your risk of developing dementia no matter how bad your hearing loss is, or becomes.
(1) Pedersen, Traci. 2011. Hearing Loss Linked to Dementia. Psych Central News.
(2) Mozes, Alan. 2011. Study Suggests Hearing Loss-Dementia Link. Bloomberg Businessweek.