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Is there a link between hearing loss and dementia?

With a new study on hearing loss and dementia recently published in the news I am adding this information to a column I wrote in 2016. This new study appearing just last week said, “A team of researchers at Newcastle University in the UK suggested a new theory on how the loss of hearing may cause dementia and that addressing hearing impairment may help to prevent the condition, according to the published report in the journal Neuron.

The challenge has been to explain how a disorder of the ear can lead to a degenerative problem in the brain,” author of the study, Tim Griffiths, a professor of Newcastle University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences, said in a press release”.

The article further said, “The researchers considered explanations of how changes in brain activity due to a person’s loss of hearing might cause elevated levels of abnormal proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease, leading to the neurodegenerative condition associated with memory loss. The researchers looked at three key aspects: lack of input from sound leading to brain shrinkage; an underlying cause for loss of hearing and dementia; and brain resources becoming unavailable to perform other tasks because they have to compensate for hearing loss.” Some in my industry will begin marketing this study in advertisements trying to motivate patients to immediately go buy hearing aids. I think the new study is interesting but not conclusive. There have been other studies that proceeded this one. Now quoting my June 2016 column, “There have been some recent studies about hearing loss and the role it plays in the onset of dementia.”

AARP published an article in April of 2015 which said in part, “A 2013 study, by Dr. Frank Lin and his colleagues at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland tracked the overall cognitive abilities (including concentration, memory and planning skills) of nearly 2,000 older adults whose average age was 77. After six years, those who began the study with hearing loss severe enough to interfere with conversation were 24 percent more likely than those with normal hearing to see their cognitive abilities diminish. Essentially, the researchers said, hearing loss seemed to speed up age-related cognitive decline.

In a 2011 study focusing on dementia, Lin and his colleagues monitored the cognitive health of 639 people who were mentally sharp when the study began. The researchers tested the volunteers’ mental abilities regularly, following most for about 12 years, and some for as long as 18 years. The results were striking: the worse the initial hearing loss was, the more likely the person was to develop dementia. Compared with people of normal hearing, those with moderate hearing loss had triple the risk. Lin is quick to point out that simply being at increased risk does not mean a person is certain to develop dementia.”

Previous to the AARP article was a report directly from John Hopkins, “Although the brain becomes smaller with age, the shrinkage seems to be fast-tracked in older adults with hearing loss, according to the results of a study by researchers from Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Aging. The findings add to a growing list of health consequences associated with hearing loss, including increased risk of dementia, falls, hospitalizations, and diminished physical and mental health overall.”

As you allow those quotes to sink in, I want you to know this remains a very hot topic in the hearing aid industry. While Dr. Lin clearly said that “hearing loss does not bring the certainty of dementia,” there has been a rush to market the hearing impaired population with these facts hoping for a huge surge in hearing aid sales. What is safe to say is that hearing loss clearly affects a patient’s ability to communicate now and with hearing loss the brain has less information to process causing a lack of cognitive ability. Cognitive is a big word that means the ability to comprehend what is being said and thereby, what is going on.

Hearing loss mimics some symptoms of dementia. Withdrawal and personal isolation lead some families to believe their parent’s have dementia. I have experienced dozens of sessions with adult children who cried when their mom or dad sparkled in communication again when they could hear with the hearing aids. Hearing aids do not cure Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or any other dementia from any other impairment. If a hearing aid professional says or even hints that these diseases can be reversed or prevented with hearing aids they are injuring a family further and should have their license revoked. All that can be safely said is that hearing loss does mimic some symptoms of dementia and Dr. Frank Lin’s studies state that staying sharp in our sense of hearing seems to keep us mentally sharp longer.

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Jeffrey L. Bayliff, NBC-HIS, is owner of Hear the Birds Hearing Aid Center, Lock Haven, PA

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