Hearing Loss & Dementia: What You Need to Know
By Kathy McGowan, AuD CCC-A

September is World Alzheimer’s Month and one of Beltone’s top Audiologists, Dr. Kathy McGowan, is explaining the connection between hearing loss and dementia

According to the World Alzheimer Report 2019, many people still wrongly believe dementia is a normal part of aging. However, studies have shown other risk factors, such as untreated hearing loss, can lead to dementia – after all, you can’t remember, what you can’t hear.

Research has revealed that adults with hearing loss have a higher risk for cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Hearing loss is the top preventable risk factor for dementia. Correcting hearing difficulties early on drastically reduces the risk but the risk can escalate as a person’s hearing loss worsens.

What’s the connection?

  1. Brain atrophy occurs from hearing loss when the “hearing” section of the brain becomes less active from lack of stimulation from everyday sounds which causes changes in brain structure and function. Atrophy occurs more quickly in people with hearing loss and could be the first link between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
  2. An “overwhelmed” brain creates the second link between hearing loss and dementia as the brain must work overtime just to understand what people are saying. Straining to hear all the time depletes a person’s mental energy and steals brain power needed for other crucial functions like remembering, thinking, and acting. This can further set the stage for cognitive decline including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
  3. Social isolation is the third link between hearing loss and Alzheimer’s. A study by the National Council on Aging of 2,300 hearing impaired adults found that people with untreated hearing loss are more likely to experience loneliness, worry, depression, anxiety, and paranoia and are less likely to join social activities. When a person withdraws from life, their risk for dementia intensifies.

In short, the less we stimulate our brains by interacting with other people, places, and things – and the less we use our brains to hear and listen – the more quickly our brains decline, putting us at greater risk for dementia.

Key factors:

  • People with mild hearing loss are nearly twice as likely to develop dementia than those with normal hearing
  • People with moderate hearing loss are three times as likely to develop dementia
  • People with severe hearing loss are five times as likely to develop dementia
  • 36% of the risk for dementia is associated with hearing loss for those over 60 years

Is it dementia or hearing loss?

If a loved one is showing signs of what you think is dementia, for example, forgetting what they just heard you say, forgetting appointments they had made or seeming confused by verbal instruction, help them get their hearing checked sooner rather than later. Sometimes undiagnosed hearing loss symptoms are thought to be symptoms of dementia when they’re really not.

For those with Alzheimer’s, hearing loss can aggravate symptoms. A hearing impairment makes it difficult to listen, reply, and respond to verbal cues. It escalates feelings of confusion, isolation, and paranoia.

Hearing aids may reduce your risk of cognitive decline & help relieve Alzheimer’s symptoms

Numerous studies show hearing aids not only improve a person’s hearing, but they also help preserve their independence, mental abilities, emotional and physical health, and social lives. Early identification and treatment of a potential hearing loss help to minimize risks later in life.

Hearing aids can help relieve Alzheimer’s symptoms, and several styles are easy for a person with cognitive impairment to use. A study by the American Journal of Epidemiology found that hearing aids slowed the rate of memory decline and improved the quality of life for Alzheimer’s patients with hearing loss.

With the FDA’s new OTC hearing aid regulation, more people will soon have greater access to hearing aids, but it’s always best to seek advice from a professional first to properly diagnose the hearing loss type (or if it may just be earwax!). Partner with the hearing care experts at Beltone to understand all your options. You can schedule a free hearing screening at your local Beltone Hearing Care Center at Beltone.com and get started on your journey to healthy ears and a healthy brain.

Kathy McGowan, AuD CCC-A, has been a practicing Doctor of Audiology with Beltone for over 16 years having received her Audiology Doctorate from A.T. Still University of Health Sciences. As an Audiologist, Dr. McGowan evaluates, diagnoses, and treats hearing loss, balance issues, and tinnitus. She is passionate about hearing health care, hearing loss prevention and treatment, and helping her patients to hear better via the latest Beltone hearing aids and technology.


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