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November is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. This devastating disease affects an estimated 5.5 million Americans, with the majority of people age 65 or older. A study from 2013 found that untreated hearing loss could have an adverse effect on your cognitive abilities. We’d like to take this opportunity to raise awareness on Alzheimer’s Disease and discuss the cognitive benefits of treating hearing loss.
Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease
Despite the high rate of Alzheimer’s among people age 65 and older, it is important to keep in mind that memory loss is not a normal part of aging. Furthermore, early onset Alzheimer’s affects approximately 200,000 Americans under the age of 65.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease, commonly referred to as Alzheimer’s, is a “type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. Symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.” Making up 60% to 80% of cases, Alzheimer’s is actually the most common type of dementia. Dementia is a general term that is used to describe a collection of symptoms of mental decline, ranging from memory loss to thinking skills.
As a progressive disease, Alzheimer’s worsens over time – on average, over 14 years. Commonly, Alzheimer’s is not diagnosed until it is in its later stages, usually years 8-10, when people begin to lose the ability to have a conversation or respond to their environment. Unfortunately, because of this late diagnosis, by the time it is detected, Alzheimer’s patients already suffer from lesions that have spread through the brain.
Though there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are many effective treatments, especially with early intervention for patients with healthy brains. Common treatments include medication, a good diet, physical exercise, and social engagement. If detected early, people can preserve their quality of life. Another important element is treating hearing loss.
The Effects of Untreated Hearing Loss on the Brain
There are many intersections between hearing health and healthy cognitive abilities. Because one in three people over the age of 65 experience some degree of hearing loss, and the majority of Alzheimer’s patients are over the age of 65, we find some parallel in the two conditions.
While hearing impairment has commonly been accepted as a fact of aging, studies from Johns Hopkins have pointed to a possible link between hearing impairment and cognitive decline. Our brains, which are on average 1300-1500 cubic centimeters, peak in size in our mid-20s and begin to shrink as we get older, which contributes to cognitive decline. Researchers at Johns Hopkins found that cognitive decline is more likely to expedite over the long term for hearing-impaired test subjects, who “lost more than an additional cubic centimeter of brain tissue each year compared with those with normal hearing.”
In a study with 639 subjects, Dr. Frank Lin and his team of researchers monitored cognitive decline in correlation with hearing loss over a span of 12 to 18 years and found that the “worse the initial hearing loss was, the more likely the person was to develop dementia.” According to Dr. Lin, “Our results suggest that hearing loss could be another ‘hit’ on the brain in many ways.” Lin points to three particular areas that could be affected: cognitive load, changes in brain structure and function, and reduced social engagement.
With untreated hearing loss, people may struggle to hear and recognize speech, which could lead to a heavier “cognitive load.” Over time, untreated hearing loss could lead to social isolation, which is listed as a risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia. The good news is that treating hearing loss with hearing aids provides significant benefits, both to cognitive health and improving one’s social engagement.
The Use of Hearing Aids Could Reduce Cognitive Decline
Hearing aids are the most common form of treatment for hearing loss. A 2011 study from Japan researched three groups of people (normal hearing, hearing loss without hearing aids, and hearing loss with hearing aids) and gauged their cognitive abilities through a series of tests. They found that “between the three groups…the hearing loss without hearing aids group showed the lowest score” while there was no difference in results from people with normal hearing and people who treated hearing loss with hearing aids. They concluded “that prescription of a hearing aid during the early stages of hearing loss is related to the retention of cognitive abilities in such elderly people.”
Similarly, Dr. Lin at Johns Hopkins believes that the link between untreated hearing loss and cognitive decline offers “a starting point for interventions – even as simple as hearing aids – that could delay or prevent dementia by improving patients’ hearing.” In other words, hearing aids support our brains in the listening process and reconnect us to our loved ones and communities, keeping us social.
Visit Us at Kenwood Hearing Center
Scheduling an annual hearing test is an important part of maintain your hearing health, as well as your cognitive health. For more information and to schedule a consultation, contact us at Kenwood Hearing Center.