Hearing loss is an extremely common issue among older adults. In fact, about 30% of people in the U.S. between the ages of 65 and 74 have hearing loss. That number climbs to almost 50% for those older than 75. As those statistics indicate, hearing loss is an ordinary part of growing older. Unfortunately, it can also be a warning sign. Lots of research shows that moderate and severe hearing loss may greatly increase one’s risk for dementia:
- A study published in JAMA found that participants aged 70 or older with moderate to severe hearing loss had a 17% chance of developing dementia, compared to 9% among those with mild hearing loss and 6% among those with no hearing loss.
- A study from the Johns Hopkins Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health tracked 639 adults for nearly 12 years. It found that mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk, moderate hearing loss tripled risk, and severe hearing loss quintupled dementia risk.
- Another study published in JAMA found an association between decreasing hearing and decreasing cognition among those with subclinical (i.e. not severe enough to have noticeable symptoms) hearing loss.
- A 2020 Lancet report calculated that hearing loss approximately doubles the risk of dementia – similar to the increased risk caused by a traumatic brain injury.
- Researchers from Trinity College Dublin, reviewed and analyzed the results of 36 different studies examining the relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline. They found that age-related hearing loss had a small but significant association with developing dementia.
What is it about hearing loss that increases dementia risk?
Based on this research, it’s estimated that up to 8% of dementia cases are caused in some way by hearing loss. There is no consensus on why exactly this happens, but researchers have a few theories.
One is that hearing loss causes changes in one’s brain structure, directly increasing risk for cognitive decline. There’s also the possibility that hearing loss can make the brain work harder – diverting important resources from other areas like thinking and memory in order to fully understand and process sounds.
Another theory is that hearing loss can cause people to feel more difficulty in connecting and communicating with others. As a result, they socialize less and don’t go out as much. This reduction in social engagement and intellectual stimulation may lead to cognitive decline and dementia.
Reducing your dementia risk
It is important to remember that not all cases of hearing loss will result in dementia. Even better: there is strong evidence indicating that having your hearing loss treated can reduce your risk for dementia.
A meta-analysis of 31 studies found that people who used hearing restorative devices (such as hearing aids) had a lower risk of long-term cognitive decline compared to people with uncorrected hearing loss. Separately, a large observational study found that hearing aids appeared to delay the onset of cognitive impairment and dementia.
If you’re noticing trouble hearing in yourself or a loved one, talk to your doctor and ask for an audiology evaluation so you reduce your risk for complications as soon as possible. And don’t forget: hearing aids are now available over the counter without a prescription – so take care of your hearing, and your cognitive health.