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This month is World Alzheimer’s Month and September 21st is World Alzheimer’s day! Alzheimer’s disease is the most severe form of dementia which impacts millions of people globally.
Dementia refers to several medical conditions that are characterized by cognitive decline: reduced ability to make decisions, solve problems, remember, learn etc. There are different types of dementia but Alzheimer’s disease is the most common, accounting for 60-80% of all cases. Dementia is incurable so identifying and treating underlying conditions is critical in preventing or delaying its development.
One of the conditions that research has long identified as increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s is untreated hearing loss. So, you can mark World Alzheimer’s month by prioritizing your health and scheduling an appointment to have your hearing tested!
Understanding Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is the third most common chronic health condition that older adults experience. Impacting over 40 million people in the U.S., hearing loss is a prevalent medical issue that has significant effects.
There are several factors that can cause hearing loss including: existing medical conditions (hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity etc.), environmental exposure to loud noise, and genetic history. These factors typically damage the hair cells in the inner ear. These cells help translate soundwaves into electrical signals for the brain to process which is how we are able to understand what we hear. Because these hair cells do not regenerate (unlike other types of cells), damage is permanent and results in impaired hearing. This produces a range of symptoms including:
- Tinnitus which refers to a ringing or buzzing noise in one or both ears
- Sounds are muffled and unclear
- Increasing the volume on electronic devices (smart phone, television, speaker)
- Frequently asking others to repeat themselves, speak loudly and/or slowly
- Trouble hearing, particularly in environments with background noise
- Needing to move to a quieter area to have a conversation
The experience of these symptoms makes it difficult to engage in conversations. This strains communication which impacts relationships, job performance, and your participation in activities. Untreated hearing loss can also contribute to the development of other medical conditions including cognitive decline.
Link Between Alzheimer’s Disease & Hearing Loss
Research has shown that dementia and hearing loss are correlated. As such, we can find a link between Alzheimer’s disease (a form of dementia) and untreated hearing loss. Both conditions disproportionately impact older adults:
- Hearing Loss
- 25% of adults ages 65-74 have hearing loss
- 50% of adults 75 and older have disabling hearing loss
- 1 in 10 people age 65 and older have Alzheimer’s
- 80% of people with Alzheimer’s are 75 and older
Studies show that hearing loss increases the risk of Alzheimer’s, and in some instances, significantly. Recent studies have revealed that not only does hearing loss increase the risk, but the more severe the hearing loss, then the likelier cognitive decline is. More specifically, the risk for dementia is twice as likely for people with mild hearing loss and triples for people with moderate hearing loss.
It is unclear how hearing loss contributes to the development of dementia but researchers suggest a few theories including:
- Hearing loss renders parts of the brain inactive which impacts overall cognitive function
- One of the impacts of impaired hearing is social withdrawal, resulting in less stimulation and engagement for the brain
- The disproportionate energy used to hear, overworks the brain and impacts cognitive capacity
There is ongoing research further investing the link between hearing loss and Alzheimer’s and how they are related.
Get Your Hearing Tested!
One useful way to reduce your risk of cognitive decline is by having your hearing tested! Hearing tests involve a noninvasive, and relatively easy process that measures your hearing ability in both ears. This establishes any impairment, the degree of the impairment, and specific type of hearing loss you may be experiencing.
Fortunately, there are effective ways to treat hearing loss. The most common treatment is hearing aids which are electronic devices that assist in absorbing and processing sound; significantly increasing one’s ability to hear. Not only does this improve your hearing, but identifying and addressing hearing loss can drastically reduce your risk of developing other medical conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.