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For many people, memory loss is seen as something we all naturally develop as we get old. But there is a growing body of research that shows this isn’t true. While many of our bodily functions will feel the strain in later life, an accelerated deterioration can lead to some serious conditions such as dementia.
However, there are things we can do to mitigate the effects of ageing. Treating our hearing can play a big role in maintaining good brain functions. According to recent studies, older adults who are worried that they are showing early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease should also think about getting a hearing check-up.
The connection between brain health and hearing loss
“What might appear to be signs of memory loss could actually point to hearing issues,” according to Dr. Susan Vandermorris, one of the study’s authors and a clinical neuropsychologist at Baycrest Center for Geriatric Care in Toronto, Canada.
In the recent Baycrest study that she head-authored, which was published in the Canadian Journal on Aging, found that the majority of patients who tested for memory and thinking problems and potential brain disorders had a degree of hearing loss. Surprisingly, only one in five of the participants in the study suffering from hearing loss were currently using hearing aids.
“We commonly see clients who are worried about Alzheimer’s disease because their partner complains that they don’t seem to pay attention, they don’t seem to listen or they don’t remember what is said to them,” says Dr. Vandermorris. “Sometimes addressing hearing loss may mitigate or fix what looks like a memory issue. An individual isn’t going to remember something said to them if they didn’t hear it properly.” She’s suggesting that the person who supposed memory issues might simply have failed to receive the information, due to a hearing loss.
Another purported link between hearing loss and dementia is through social isolation. “People who can’t hear well have difficulty communicating and tend to withdraw from social activities as a way of coping,” says Dr. Vandermorris. “This can lead to isolation and loneliness, which can impact cognitive, physical and mental health.”
What is the process by which a person’s cognitive health is impacted? Those who have trouble hearing when talking to others find it tough to put together a group of random sounds into sentences that mean something. The listening might experience confusion and bewilderment at whoever is speaking. Language is closely related to the ability to think. Imagine how difficult it would be to try to think of a response to a person’s words at the same time as trying to understand what they are saying. This kind of strain on cognitive resources can lead to a cognitive load, exhausting the individual and making them more susceptible to a host of cognitive disorders.
Treating hearing loss can lead to improved brain health
The nature of hearing loss lends itself to developing memory loss much sooner. As the brain doesn’t receive as much stimulation from the environment as it should do when dealing with untreated hearing loss, the cells in the auditory centers of the brain start to atrophy. This affects overall brain health and can lead to difficulty focusing on specific tasks, communicating, and memory loss.
That is why it is important to get it treated as soon as possible. “Since hearing loss has been identified as a leading, potentially modifiable risk factor for dementia, treating it may be one way people can reduce the risk,” says Marilyn Reed, a fellow author on the study and practice advisor with Baycrest.
Hearing loss is the third most common chronic health condition in older adults, and is present in 50 per cent of individuals over the age of 65 and 90 per cent of people over the age of 80. People wait on average 10 years before seeking treatment and fewer than 25 per cent of individuals who need hearing aids will acquire them. “Some people may be reluctant to address hearing loss, but they need to be aware that hearing health is brain health and help is available,” Dr. Vandermorris says.