Is it Dementia or Hearing Loss?

The last time you saw your dad something seemed off. He was always so engaged with everyone, but this time, it was as if he wasn’t always paying attention or was drifting away.

Maybe he’s suffering from dementia?

Maybe he just can’t hear so well?

Maybe it’s both.

If someone is having trouble understanding speech, or appears to be exhausted while having simple conversations, one might assume that person has dementia. But hearing loss can be confused with some of the symptoms consistent with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Stats and Studies

Statistics that pair dementia risk with hearing loss paint a cautious picture, but there may not be enough information available to determine the exact relationship between the two. Still, it has been found that the risk of developing dementia doubles for older adults with mild hearing loss. It triples for those with moderate hearing loss. For those with severe hearing loss, the risk can be five times as high.

One study looking at the brains of people with hearing loss found that their brain cells were less active when trying to focus on complex sentences. Those brains also had less gray matter (tissue in the brain and spinal cord that contains nerve cells and fibers) in the areas responsible for hearing.

Another study looked at cognitive impairment scores for seniors over a six-year period. It found those with hearing loss had faster mental decline. Study volunteers were cognitively normal when research began; at study’s end, people with hearing loss were 24 percent more likely to have cognitive impairment vs. people with normal hearing.

Still another study found that people who struggle to hear speech in noisy environments were more likely to develop dementia than those who possess normal hearing. But the study could not determine whether untreated hearing loss caused dementia, only that the two are linked.

So How Can You Tell?

Hearing loss can be misdiagnosed as dementia or make dementia symptoms seem worse. Symptoms that run concurrent with both can include:

  • Confusion during or trouble following conversations
  • Changes in methods of communicating
  • Difficulty completing everyday tasks
  • Feelings of fatigue or stress
  • Blasting the television volume
  • Notable increases in depression or anxiety

Can Dementia be Averted or Reversed with Hearing Aids?

Yes and no.

There are studies that point toward hearing aids being helpful under some circumstances, and possibly helping to reverse some behaviors. But research hasn’t reached the point of proving a causal relationship between hearing loss and dementia. Still, there does not appear to be any studies suggesting the use of hearing aids would accelerate cognitive problems.

For instance…

A large observational study found that hearing aids appeared to delay the onset of cognitive impairment and dementia, along with depression and falls that lead to injuries. But the study was not a randomized controlled trial, so results may have been influenced by such factors as higher incomes among hearing aid wearers – a group that tends to have more access to top medical care.

Another study looked at over 2,000 Americans age 50 and up who took word recall tests every two years, for up to 18 years. Among people who acquired hearing aids at some point during the study, evidence suggested that hearing aids slowed down the rate of losing memory for certain words.

“About 27 million Americans age 50 and up have hearing loss yet only 1-in-7 uses a hearing aid,” says Mandi Solat, AuD, of Audiology Services and Hearing Aid Center of Lakewood, Colorado. “So, there may be baseline problem in determining who has hearing loss, who has dementia, or who might have both. But, as an audiologist, I can help people stay on top of hearing loss and its potential to influence cognitive decline. I am able to assess the degree of hearing loss and how it might impact communication by performing a variety of tests.”

Whether a loved one has hearing loss by itself or it may be accompanied by dementia, hearing aids and community support could help relieve the isolation they may feel. This, in turn, can impact social participation, which has a tremendous impact on psychological well-being. In most cases where hearing loss or dementia is suspected, it is a good idea to schedule a hearing test for a loved one or the senior in your life.

If you are more suspicious that dementia might be at play, however, you may want to consider having the person tested for cognitive issues before seeing an audiologist. Seeking the advice of a geriatrician or family physician is a good place to start.

Following such testing, if hearing loss is still suspected, our practice can work with the data provided by a designated healthcare professional to determine what hearing tests might be most appropriate for that person. We can also create a plan to address hearing loss based on the person’s specific needs, habits and abilities

Sources:

Johns Hopkins Medicine, The Hidden Risks of Hearing Loss

The Hearing Journal, Hearing Loss and Dementia: Breakthrough Research Seeks Causal Link

Healthy Hearing, Hearing loss and cognitive decline: What’s the connection?

JAMA Intern Med, Hearing loss and cognitive decline in older adults 

Cognitive Vitality, Can Hearing Aids Help Prevent Dementia? 

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