June is Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month. During this time, we focus on how dementia is linked to hearing loss, and look at how we can improve brain wellness through hearing health. How does Alzheimer's factor into this? Well, dementia is a general term used for memory loss and declining cognitive function, and Alzheimer's disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases.1
Dementia is linked to hearing loss.
Currently, there are an estimated 5.7 million people in the United States who are living with Alzheimer's disease, with the vast majority (two in three) being women. Additionally, African-American seniors are twice as likely to have dementia as older Caucasians.2 As with hearing loss, Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia develop over time.
According to a study done at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Frank Lin and his colleagues discovered that "mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk. Moderate loss tripled risk, and people with a severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia."3 In addition, recent research out of the United Kingdom found that people with moderate to poor hearing were more likely to have dementia than those who hear well.4
Does treating hearing loss help support brain health?
It certainly does. When you're unable to hear well, your brain will dedicate cognitive resources to help make sense of sound at the expense of other cognitive processes, like a properly functioning memory. This is what Dr. Lin refers to as "cognitive load." For instance, when you walk, your ears are constantly picking up subtle cues that assist with balance. A loss of hearing mutes these important signals due to the overload of cognitive tasks. It makes your brain work harder just to process sound. "This subconscious multitasking may interfere with some of the mental processing needed to walk safely.”3
All of this multitasking and compensating for hearing loss has been shown to actually restructure the brain. A study done at the University of Illinois revealed that hearing loss rather than tinnitus had the greatest influence on the brain's gray and white matter alterations.5
In addition to cognitive load, social isolation is another side effect of hearing loss that is a known contributor to dementia. Maintaining healthy and positive relationships with friends, colleagues and loved ones can be very difficult when communication is obstructed due to a loss of hearing. Rather than trying to improve communication, many people tend to completely remove themselves from these conversations and engaging activities because they feel that their hearing problems will make them appear helpless or incompetent. The reality is that making these social connections and staying engaged is what keeps your brain healthy.
Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month couldn't be a better time to be proactive about your hearing health. Make an appointment for a free hearing assessment* today.
2Alzheimer's Association, 2018 Facts and Figures
4Davies, H., et. al. Hearing Impairment and Incident Dementia: Findings from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society ©42017.