Recent studies have linked untreated hearing loss to a higher risk of developing generalized dementia. But might it also contribute to Alzheimer’s disease?
Although often used interchangeably, Alzheimer’s disease is not the same as dementia. Dementia is something of a catch-all term for cognitive and memory impairment caused by advanced age, stroke, injury or illness. Some forms of dementia are preventable, reversible, or temporary.
Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia, characterized by loss of memory, cognitive, and physical function that progress inevitably to complete impairment and eventually death. The specific cause(s) remain a mystery, although studies indicate a genetic component in some cases. Lifestyle and environmental factors may also play a role in development of the disease. While there are some treatments available for the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, the eventual advancement of the condition remains inevitable.
Many people consider hearing loss a part of getting older, one that is something of an inconvenience but safe to work around and ignore. They don’t realize how much hearing loss can affect overall health, including mental acuity.
Contributing factors and how best to prevent them
Researchers have identified some of the best ways to stay mentally sharp include the following:
Auditing classes at local colleges or taking classes at senior centers are two inexpensive and convenient ways to keep learning new things. Think of your brain as a muscle — the more you work it out, the stronger it becomes. It doesn’t matter if you’re learning to interpret the works of Shakespeare or how to use Smartphone apps, so long as your brain is stimulated and challenged to remember.
Untreated hearing loss presents a significant barrier to learning, especially in classroom situations. If you cannot clearly hear the instructor or participate in discussions with fellow students, learning becomes frustrating, a chore to be avoided. When learning stops, mental atrophy sets in.
Regular exercise is believed to stave off the development of Alzheimer’s disease, although no direct link has been identified. However, lack of exercise can lead to development of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, which in turn have been associated with a higher risk of developing a form of Alzheimer’s disease called vascular dementia. Approximately 80 percent of Alzheimer’s disease patients have also been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease.
Hearing loss can be a symptom of cardiovascular disease or diabetes, which is why it is so important to speak to a doctor about it. By not seeking medical advice on hearing loss, you may be ignoring a symptom of a far more serious condition, one that when left untreated could lead to Alzheimer’s disease, another form of dementia, or death.
Another risk factor Alzheimer’s disease researchers have identified is traumatic brain injury, which often results from a fall. If you are trying to do the right thing and exercise, whether at the gym or by simply taking a brisk walk every day, it’s important to know that your risk of a fall increases when you have hearing loss. Studies indicate that if you cannot hear well, you may lack complete awareness of your environment, putting you at higher risk of missing an obstacle and falling. Another reason may be your brain is so distracted by straining to hear that balance and gait, which require significant mental attention to maintain, suffer.
It is vital to maintain social connections while aging for continued mental health. Going out with friends, playing cards, and remaining socially active provides regular stimulation that is believed to help lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Untreated hearing loss often prompts people to withdraw socially and engage in fewer activities, which in turn may contribute to depression and developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Can hearing aids help?
Treatment for hearing loss typically involves speaking to your doctor, having your hearing tested by a licensed hearing healthcare professional, seeking medical treatment, if necessary, and getting hearing aids that address your specific needs. Enough evidence of a correlation between use of hearing aids and staving off the development of dementia exists that several studies are currently underway to determine exactly how much of an impact hearing aids may have.
While hearing aids cannot yet be said to prevent the development of Alzheimer’s disease, they are known to help people remain active intellectually, physically, and socially, which in turn can have a positive effect on your overall health and delay the onset of mental decline. Identifying your hearing loss can also help your doctor uncover conditions known to contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Conversely, if you have already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, studies have shown that untreated hearing loss complicates lack of alertness, inability to learn, depression, and other symptoms. As a result, the disease may advance more quickly than it would in a person with normal or treated hearing.
Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating and degenerative condition. While there is no way to definitively prevent or cure it, you can fight back by staying active and involved in life, and treating conditions like hearing loss that can get in your way.
Patricia ‘Tish’ Ramirez, Au.D.
Tish Ramirez received her undergraduate degree from the University of Arizona, her graduate degree from Arizona State University, and her Doctorate degree from A.T. Still University. She worked clinically and dispensed hearing aids for 5 years in the Phoenix Metro area before joining a hearing aid manufacturer where she worked as a Customer Trainer, Training and Education Manager, and Region Sales Manager. She is currently the Sr. Manager of Education and Training for Siemens Hearing Instruments where she is responsible for the planning and implementation of customer and employee product meetings.