Ask the Doctors by Eve Glazier, M.D. & Elizabeth Ko, M.D.
Hearing loss and rise of dementia may be related
Dear Doctors: Our dad is 77 and is losing his hearing. He was fitted for a hearing aid, but he won’t use it. I just read there’s a connection between hearing loss and dementia. He’s actually worried about dementia, and if that’s true, it might get him to use his hearing aid. Can you talk about that?
Dear Reader: Hearing loss is a common part of aging. It affects about one-third of all adults between the ages of 65 and 74 and up to half of those over the age of 75. Being in denial can be a common response to hearing loss, particularly among older adults. While hearing aids can do a very good job of compensating for hearing loss, they don’t replicate someone’s natural hearing. Becoming accustomed to the new device can take time, practice and patience. Some studies suggest it takes six months or more to fully adjust. That’s a learning curve that some older adults find to be physically, mentally and even emotionally challenging.
Refusing to compensate for hearing loss presents a range of problems. It can hinder someone’s ability to follow or fully participate in conversations and activities with friends and family, which can leave them socially isolated. It also interferes with important aspects of daily life. This includes hearing doorbells or alarms, responding to warnings, interacting with people while shopping and running errands, and understanding doctors and pharmacists when managing medical care.
As you have read, this type of isolation has been linked to an increased risk of developing dementia. Building on previous studies, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed the health data of 2,400 adults over the age of 65. About half of the people in the group were 80 and older. The researchers found a correlation between the severity of someone’s hearing loss and their risk of developing dementia. Among individuals with hearing loss that was rated as moderate to severe, the incidence of dementia was 61% higher than in those with good hearing. When the use of a hearing aid was added to the calculations, the prevalence of dementia was reduced by 32%.
The exact connection between hearing loss and dementia isn’t fully understood. However, there are clear ties to the adverse effects of social isolation and loneliness. The evidence shows that adults who are socially isolated are at greater risk of serious physical illness and have higher rates of hospitalization than those with strong social networks.
Because your father is concerned about cognitive decline, sharing these study results may get his attention. It could also be helpful for him to see an audiologist who specializes in working with older adults. Like all tech, modern hearing aids are rapidly evolving. This includes digital technologies that help reduce unwanted noise. An audiologist can make sure your dad has the right device for his needs, and that it’s properly adjusted. Just as important, they can help your dad to understand the shift to using his hearing aid isn’t expected to happen overnight.