In our audiology practice, we see how hearing care helps people be happier, more active, and more connected to friends and family. A growing body of recent research indicates a strong link between hearing loss and the onset of dementia.
Even when people are enjoying life with full hearing, there are many other factors contributing to dementia in seniors such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Researchers are now exploring if earlier hearing care and its cognitive benefits may slow the onset of dementia. Let’s talk about this exciting possibility, with the hope that you or a loved one decide to seek earlier hearing care.
If You Think You Can’t Hear
A widely accepted notion is hearing loss is inevitable as we age. As many as two-thirds of seniors in their 70s have some degree of hearing loss. Age-related hearing loss starts slowly. Adults in their 40s and 50s often dismiss the early signs, especially when family members help them cope with their hearing loss symptoms.
From the time people start noticing they have a hearing problem, data shows on average they don’t seek treatment for 7 to 10 years. Perhaps they saw their parents’ experience with older hearing aid technology and assume hearing aids won’t work for them. Maybe vanity says wearing hearing aids somehow makes one look older or weaker. Cost is sometimes perceived as an obstacle. This delay often continues until hearing loss can no longer be ignored.
If you think you can’t hear, the reality is you probably have some hearing loss, and it’s been going on for years. The stakes may be higher than just being able to hear fully. If you could slow the progression of cognitive decline due to hearing loss, would it be worth the effort?
A Guessing Game
Hearing loss is frequently misunderstood as strictly a volume problem, when in fact the bigger issue is comprehension of words. Volume levels do tend to roll off at higher frequencies in age-related hearing loss. This makes it more difficult to distinguish sounds, especially consonants and sibilants such as ‘sh’.
Our brains are amazing. Normally, people can fill in gaps in hearing based on correctly capturing some words and adding context. For example, if it’s 9am on a Sunday morning, and your spouse asks what you would like for breakfast, you might have trouble with the word “breakfast” but can still guess the answer should be “French toast.” Take away more sounds, lip-reading, and context, and guessing becomes harder.
AUDIOLOGISTS SAY: Over 90% of age-related hearing loss is treatable with properly selected, fitted, and programmed digital hearing aids. If treated early, volume loss can be addressed with smaller, more discreet hearing aids, and the time to restore comprehension is lessened.
Now, add noise in the background. A home environment is usually peaceful, with only a few voices or perhaps a TV or radio to focus on. Out in the world, noise is common everywhere; at work, in restaurants, in stores, and elsewhere, it can be very hard to pick out voices from the clutter.
Have you noticed someone with untreated hearing loss often seems fatigued? It’s because for them, listening is a stressful activity. They are actively trying to tune into conversations, working hard to guess the words they are missing. Asking people to repeat their words, or becoming frustrated with missing big parts of conversations adds to the stress.
RESEARCHERS SAY: Cognitive overload from garbled messages forces the brain to work harder to hear. Drawing more brain resources away to hear may affect other areas such as short-term memory. People with untreated hearing loss are 24% more likely to experience cognitive decline within 6 years than those with normal hearing.
Risk of Slipping Away
Untreated hearing loss contributes to worsening cognition. The result is often social withdrawal. People with hearing loss avoid that noisy restaurant because it is so stressful for them. They’ll prefer to stay home instead of being out with friends and family. Daily interaction is essential to happiness and feelings of self-worth; isolation increases the risk of experiencing depression, and ultimately dementia.
Once social withdrawal starts, the danger becomes enormous for seniors. Family members can feel shut out when their loved ones withdraw, making it more difficult to help. Hearing comprehension continues to decline, and pathways in the brain that used to recognize voices become untrained. In this vicious cycle, any treatment becomes harder.
RESEARCHERS SAY: Compared to those with normal hearing, seniors with moderate hearing loss have triple the risk of developing dementia. Exactly why the risk increases so dramatically is still unknown. Researchers believe that a form of brain atrophy sets in as hearing paths are under-exercised.
Intervening with Hearing Care
At Estes Audiology, we firmly believe treating hearing loss sooner increases quality of life. If hearing treatment is proven to stall the onset of dementia, that would be welcome news. Another recent hearing loss research study agrees with the issues we’ve discussed surrounding cognition, social isolation, and the risk for dementia. Then, it makes a bold suggestion:
“Interventions delaying the onset of dementia by even one year would decrease the worldwide prevalence of dementia by 10%.”
We’re encouraging people to have their hearing evaluated earlier, as soon as everyday difficulty is noticed. This is especially important if you are related to someone with hearing loss. A cure for age-related hearing loss doesn’t exist yet – however, hearing aid therapy usually has positive results.
Modern digital hearing aids reduce the level of effort needed to hear and understand speech. With built-in ability to adapt to different environments, these hearing aids produce more speech clarity, even in noisy situations. Many advanced hearing aids also enhance directionality, important for finding and engaging in conversation.
If you worry that your physical hearing loss will worsen over time, digital hearing aids can easily compensate for that with reprogramming. Ongoing hearing evaluations every few years with hearing aid tune-ups can keep your hearing at full capability.
Hearing care is worth the effort. After we’ve evaluated your hearing, we can match you with any of a wide range of advanced hearing aids from leading manufacturers. Since many of these hearing aids work with smartphones and TVs, you can enjoy those devices more. We work with various insurance plans and offer financing options to find you an affordable solution. Also, we’ll help you and your family understand your hearing loss and treatment, so you can Hear Life Again.
Soriya Estes is a founder and owner of Estes Audiology, the leading independent hearing care provider in central Texas with 5 offices in Austin, Boerne, Marble Falls, New Braunfels, and Seguin. She and her teams specialize in hearing evaluation, hearing protection, and state-of-the-art hearing aid solutions.