Hearing loss and dementia seem unrelated to the majority of us. Aside from the fact that they both accompany aging, one has to do with one’s ears, and the other has to do with one’s brain.
However, multiple studies have shown they are actually closely related. In the latest study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin, cognitively healthy adults in their fifties and sixties who had been diagnosed with hearing loss were shown to face double the risk of developing dementia within five years.
Other studies have shown that risk of dementia increases as hearing loss increases. According to a study by a researcher at Johns Hopkins, mild, moderate, and severe hearing loss made the odds of dementia two, three, and five times higher in the next decade or more, respectively. What’s more, cognitive impairment seems to occur faster in those who have hearing loss. Older adults with hearing loss experienced mental decline an average of 30-40 percent faster.
This correlation affects many of us. Hearing loss is a common ailment in late middle age. At age 65, about one in three adults experiences hearing loss. For adults over 70, two in three have some degree of hearing loss. Dementia is slightly less common, but still prevalent — about one in three Americans will die with some form of dementia.
Why is this the case? We don’t yet know. One possibility is that a brain pathology we’re not aware of is responsible for both symptoms. Another potential reason is that hearing loss causes social isolation. When individuals are no longer able to interact with their surroundings as much as they used to, their brains deteriorate. A third theory is that because hearing is responsible for a fair amount of brain stimulation, the loss of hearing stimuli leads the brain’s functioning to weaken overall. It’s also possible that having to decode noise continually puts too much strain on the mind, leaving it weak and vulnerable to degeneration.
Protect your hearing early in life by limiting your exposure to loud noise. At 90 decibels of uninterrupted sound, the limit of safe noise exposure is eight hours. For each six decibels increase of uninterrupted sound thereafter, the limit of safe exposure is reduced by half.
Also, be on the lookout for symptoms such as excessive ear wax, repeated ear infection, pain, itching, ringing or sudden hearing loss. If you have any of these symptoms, see an otolaryngologist as soon as possible. Ear damage can worsen over time when the issue causing it remains unresolved.
If you already have hearing loss, speak with your otolaryngologist to see what treatment is ideal for your situation. Don’t put off buying a hearing aid if it means you can’t follow along with your friends’ and family’s conversations. Stay social and keep your brain engaged. Additionally, follow a healthy diet and exercise program — the healthier you are overall, the healthier your mind is likely to be.