Hearing loss is a common condition that millions suffer from, and it could impact your risk of dementia, experts say.
A new study from researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that hearing loss was associated with a higher risk of cognitive decline.
“Dementia is a substantial public health challenge that continues to grow. There is no cure, and effective treatments to prevent progression or reverse the course of dementia are lacking,” said lead author Sharon Curhan, M.D., an epidemiologist in the Channing Division for Network Medicine at the Brigham. “Our findings show that hearing loss is associated with new onset of subjective cognitive concerns which may be indicative of early stage changes in cognition. These findings may help identify individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline.”
The study was eight years long and included 10,107 men over the age of 62. The men were tested at the beginning, middle and end of the eight-year study. Compared to men with no hearing loss, cognitive decline was 30 percent higher among men with mild hearing loss, 42 percent higher among men with moderate hearing loss, and 54 percent higher among men with severe hearing loss who did not use hearing aids.
Hearing aids seemed to help in cases of severe hearing loss—men with severe hearing loss who used aid had cognitive decline 37 percent higher than those without hearing loss, compared to the 54 percent of men who did not use aids.
The good news is that hearing loss could be used as a diagnostic tool, giving doctors a red flag that a patient should be screened for dementia. Identifying dementia in the very early stages, when symptoms aren’t obvious, could have a positive effect on the longevity of the person with Alzheimer’s and could lead to a 15 percent reduction in the cost of the disease, according to a report released by the Alzheimer’s Association in 2018.
“While current therapies do not prevent, halt or reverse Alzheimer’s disease, they can temporarily improve and prolong cognitive function in many individuals with Alzheimer’s dementia,” researchers wrote in the report.
Experts don’t know if hearing loss triggers cognitive decline or if hearing problems are symptoms of issues in the brain. We do know, though, that having trouble hearing can isolate older adults, which has been shown to raise dementia risk by 40 percent.
Other studies have found that the risk for cognitive decline associated with hearing problems can be improved by 75 percent when hearing aids are introduced into the picture.
The study had limitations—the subjects were all male and predominately white health professionals. While this kind of homogeneity can lead to more accurate conclusions for the group being studied, it doesn’t say much about whether the same conclusions would be reached for a more diverse group. And it just showed a correlation, not a causal relationship.
“Whether there is a temporal association between hearing loss and cognitive decline and whether this relation is causal remains unclear,” said Curhan. “We plan to conduct further longitudinal studies of the relation of hearing loss and cognition in women and in younger populations, which will be informative.”