Hearing Loss and Dementia

Table of Contents

Hearing loss is a common problem, affecting millions of people of all ages. But did you know that hearing loss may also contribute to dementia? According to recent estimates, hearing loss accounts for 8% of all dementia cases – nearly 800,000 new cases yearly.

If you or someone you love is struggling with hearing loss, don’t hesitate to seek help. Many resources are available to those with hearing impairments; treatment can often improve hearing and quality of life. With early intervention, we can help keep our loved ones stay connected – and perhaps help prevent or delay the devastating effects of dementia.

This article only provides general educational and informational purposes on the link between hearing loss and dementia. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please consult your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about your health.

How is Hearing Loss Associated With Dementia?

Hearing loss is recognised as a modifiable risk factor for dementia. There are many possible explanations for the link between hearing loss and dementia.

One theory is that hearing loss may lead to social isolation, which may cause cognitive decline.

Another possibility is that the brain may compensate for hearing loss by redirecting resources to other functions, leading to mental fatigue and driving changes in brain structure and function.

While the exact mechanisms are not yet known, it is clear that hearing loss is a significant risk factor for dementia.

Dementia is a significant public health problem that significantly burdens individuals, families, and societies.

According to the World Health Organization, dementia is a global health crisis. An estimated 55 million people worldwide live with dementia, which is forecast to double every 20 years.

12 Modifiable Risk Factors

According to an update to the 2017 Lancet Commission on Dementia prevention, intervention, and care, 12 potentially modifiable risk factors account for around 40% of worldwide dementias.

Although there is currently no cure for dementia, researchers estimate almost half of the cases could be prevented or delayed by targeting the following modifiable risk factors:

  1. Hearing loss
  2. Hypertension
  3. Smoking
  4. Obesity
  5. Depression
  6. Physical inactivity
  7. Limited education
  8. Diabetes
  9. Low social contact
  10. Head injuries in mid-life
  11. Excessive alcohol consumption in mid-life
  12. Exposure to air pollution later in life

By reducing your risk of developing these conditions, you can considerably reduce your chances of developing dementia. In addition, you can also help to support the health of your brain by maintaining a healthy diet and getting regular exercise.

With the number of cases expected to rise sharply in the coming years, we all must continue to support and encourage research on new ways to prevent and treat dementia.

An infographic life-course model showing that 12 potentially modifiable risk factors account for around 40% of worldwide dementias

What is Dementia?

Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability due to disease or injury. It broadly describes a decline in cognitive abilities, such as memory loss, difficulties with problem-solving, and changes in mood or behaviour.

In the early stages of dementia, symptoms may be mild and easily mistaken for those of normal aging. However, as the condition progresses, the symptoms begin interfering with daily life and cause significant distress.

Each type of dementia has its symptoms and causes, but all types can lead to a decline in cognitive function and an inability to live independently.

If you or someone you know displays signs of dementia, you must see a doctor for an accurate diagnosis. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing dementia, but treatments and support are available to help people live well with the condition.

What Are the Causes of Dementia?

The causes of dementia are diverse, and sometimes multiple etiologies are present in an individual. In the broadest terms, damage to nerve cells in the brain causes dementia.

While each cause of dementia is unique, there are certain similarities between them. For instance, all types of dementia can lead to memory, language, and thinking problems. In addition, dementia may lead to changes in mood and behaviour. As a result, it is vital to know the specific cause of dementia to provide the most effective treatment.

Knowing the cause of dementia is very helpful for providing the best possible care. There is no known cure in some cases, such as Alzheimer’s. However, identifying the cause of dementia can still help direct treatment and prognosis.

The most common causes divide into five categories:

1. Neurodegenerative

Neurodegenerative diseases typically involve the deterioration of nerve cells in the brain, which can lead to memory, thinking, and behaviour problems. Alzheimer’s disease is the most well-known form of neurodegenerative dementia, but there are others, including Lewy body dementia and frontotemporal dementia.

2. Vascular

Vascular disease is any condition that affects the blood vessels, such as hypertension, stroke, and atherosclerosis (hardening of your arteries caused by gradual plaque buildup). Vascular disease can damage the brain by depriving it of oxygen and nutrients.

Studies have shown that people with vascular disease are more likely to develop dementia, especially if they have multiple types of vascular disease. Vascular disease can also lead to inflammation, another cause of dementia.

3. Autoimmune/Inflammatory

Autoimmune/inflammatory conditions occur when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, causing inflammation. This inflammation can damage the brain and lead to cognitive decline. Some examples of autoimmune/inflammatory causes of dementia include Sarcoidosis, Lupus, and Multiple Sclerosis.

4. Normal-Pressure Hydrocephalus

Normal-pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) occurs when there is an abnormal buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. This fluid typically provides protection and cushioning for the brain, but in people with NPH, it can cause the brain to expand and pressure delicate nerves and blood vessels. Symptoms of NPH include difficulties with walking, problems with bladder control, and impaired thinking.

5. Psychiatric Conditions

Psychiatric conditions linked to dementia include schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. In some cases, these conditions may cause changes in the brain that lead to cognitive decline. In other cases, the medications used to treat these conditions may increase the risk of dementia.

6 Common Symptoms of Dementia

Dementia symptoms can vary depending on the type and cause of dementia, but there are some common signs. Early symptoms of dementia may include:

  1. Memory problems, especially forgetting recent events or conversations.
  2. Difficulty completing familiar tasks.
  3. Language problems include trouble finding the right words or speaking in sentences that don’t make sense.
  4. Disorientation, such as getting lost in familiar places or forgetting how to get home.
  5. Poor judgment and decision-making.
  6. Changes in mood and behaviour, such as increased anxiety or aggression.

As dementia progresses, symptoms can become more severe. People with late-stage dementia may lose the ability to communicate, feed themselves, dress, or use the bathroom independently. They may also experience hallucinations or delusions.

Treatment Options

When a loved one is diagnosed with dementia, it can be a challenging and confusing time. There are many different types of dementia, and each one affects people in different ways. As a result, no single “dementia treatment” is suitable for everyone.

However, there are methods to help manage the condition and improve your quality of life. For example, strategies such as promoting social and recreational activities, providing support and assistance with activities of daily living, and managing medications can be helpful.

In addition, it is essential to provide caregivers with respite care and support. Taking these steps makes it possible to help someone with dementia maintain their independence and quality of life for as long as possible.

Treatment plans will vary depending on the type and cause of dementia. There is no known cure in some cases, such as Alzheimer’s. However, treatments can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life.

Some common treatments for dementia include:

  • Medications to improve cognitive function or relieve behavioural problems.
  • Therapy to help with communication, memory, and problem-solving.
  • Assistive devices to help with daily living activities.
  • Home modifications to make it easier to get around and stay safe.

A diagnosis of dementia can be overwhelming, but treatment options are available to help manage the condition. Working with a healthcare team to create a plan that meets your unique needs is paramount.

12 Ways to Protect Yourself

While there is no sure way to prevent dementia, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk. For example, staying physically active and mentally engaged can help keep your brain healthy as you age. Eating a nutritious diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking are also important.

According to research, around 40% of worldwide dementias are attributable to 12 modifiable risk factors. By making some lifestyle changes, you could potentially prevent or delay the onset of dementia.

1. Protect Your Hearing

Noise-induced hearing loss is preventable, and wearing hearing protection when exposed to loud noise will help—in addition, avoiding exposure to loud noise when possible can reduce the risk of hearing damage.

Hearing aids can improve the quality of life for people with hearing loss by helping them stay connected to family, friends, and the community. 

Hearing aids may also protect from cognitive decline and brain shrinkage by maintaining brain cell activity.

2. Maintain a Healthy Blood Pressure

Aim to maintain the systolic blood pressure of 130 mm Hg or less in midlife from around age 40.

High blood pressure in midlife is a risk factor for developing dementia later in life.

Normal blood pressure is around 120/80 (said as “one-twenty over eighty”) or lower.

3. Quit Smoking

Quitting smoking can be difficult, but it is essential for protecting your health. Many resources are available to help people quit smoking; even small steps can make a big difference. If you are trying to quit smoking, avoid situations where you are likely to be tempted to smoke, such as being around other smokers or drinking alcohol.

Deciding to quit smoking is essential in reducing your risk of dementia. Support from your doctor, friends and family can also be vital in helping you stay on track. 

4. Maintain a Healthy Weight

Physical activity can help reduce the risk of obesity by helping maintain a healthy weight.

Obesity is a complex disease that is caused by a variety of factors. For some people, it may be due to genetics or a medical condition. Others may struggle with obesity because of their lifestyle or diet.

Obesity is a risk factor for dementia because it is associated with inflammation, insulin resistance, and changes in brain structure.

Inflammation and insulin resistance are linked to an increased risk of dementia.

Changes in brain structure, such as in the hippocampus, are also associated with an increased risk of dementia.

Obesity is a preventable risk factor for dementia. Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise can help to reduce the risk of developing dementia.

5. Look After Your Mental Health

Just as taking great care of your physical health, it’s crucial to look after your mental health. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and behave.

Recent research acknowledges that depression is a risk factor for dementia, but the relationship between the two conditions is not fully understood. It is important to remember that dementia may also cause depression in later life. The loss of cognitive abilities can be tough to cope with, and feelings of isolation and loneliness are common.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of depression, it is vital to seek help from a healthcare provider or mental health professional. 

6. Stay Physically Active

Exercise is strongly associated with a reduced risk of dementia. In one study, older adults who engaged in regular physical activity had a lower risk of developing dementia than those who were sedentary. Furthermore, those who exercised more frequently had an even lower risk.

While the exact mechanism is unknown, exercise may help improve blood flow to the brain and reduce inflammation.

So, if you are looking for ways to keep your mind sharp as you age, add some exercise to your daily routine.

7. Keep Learning

Research indicates that higher childhood education levels and lifelong educational participation reduce dementia risk. People with higher levels of education were more likely to experience a slower rate of cognitive decline than those with less education.

Additionally, educational attainment has reduced the risk of developing dementia in later life. While the exact mechanism is unclear, educational attainment may help build cognitive reserve, providing a buffer against age-related cognitive decline.

Ensuring that all children have access to primary and secondary education may help to reduce the incidence of dementia in later life. In addition to the cognitive benefits, education can also provide other lifelong benefits, such as improved economic opportunities and better physical health. Therefore, investing in education may be one of the best ways to prevent dementia and promote overall health and wellbeing.

8. Be Mindful of Diabetes

Diabetes is a medical condition that can impact many aspects of a person’s health. One of the complications associated with diabetes is dementia.

There are several reasons why diabetes may lead to dementia. One reason is related to the effects that diabetes has on the heart. Heart disease and elevated blood pressure are risk factors for dementia.

In addition, diabetes damages blood vessels and nerves, which can impair brain function and lead to cognitive decline.

Finally, high blood sugar levels can damage proteins in the brain, leading to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia.

Research indicates the earlier you develop diabetes, the greater your risk of developing dementia, so early diagnosis and treatment of diabetes may help prevent or slow the progression of the disease.

9. Stay in Touch With Friends and Family

While social isolation can be a risk factor for dementia, it’s important to remember that not everyone who experiences social isolation will develop the condition.

Many factors contribute to dementia, and social isolation is just one of them. However, research has shown that social isolation can increase the risk of cognitive decline, especially in older adults.

One theory is that social isolation leads to a decrease in brain activity, which can then lead to dementia. Social isolation can also lead to poor nutrition and sleep, which have links to cognitive decline.

If you’re concerned about social isolation, there are many ways to stay connected and active. Joining a club or taking a class are great ways to meet new people and stay sharp. Online social networks can help you stay connected with friends and family. By taking steps to reduce your risk of social isolation, you can help protect your cognitive health.

10. Protect Your Head From Injury

Though it is most commonly associated with aging, dementia can also result from head injuries. That’s why it’s so important to protect your brain, especially if you participate in activities with a risk of head injuries.

One of the best ways to do this is to wear a helmet whenever you’re engaged in biking, skateboarding, or horseback riding. And if you’re involved in contact sports like rugby or boxing, follow all safety rules and regulations to minimise your risk of sustaining a head injury.

Car accidents are another leading cause of head injuries, so practising safe driving habits and wearing a seatbelt is essential.

Taking these precautions can help reduce your risk of dementia later in life.

11. Drink Responsibly

Too much alcohol in mid-life is a risk factor for dementia. Misusing alcohol and drinking more than 21 units per week can damage the brain and increase the risk of developing dementia.

There are several reasons why excessive alcohol consumption can lead to dementia.

First, it can damage the brain by causing inflammation and shrinkage.

Second, it can increase the levels of harmful chemicals in the brain.

And finally, it can interfere with how the brain breaks down and uses vitamins and minerals.

Talk to your doctor or a qualified counsellor if you’re concerned about your alcohol intake. They can help you develop a plan to reduce drinking and your risk of developing dementia.

12. Limit Exposure to Air Pollution Later in Life

There is growing evidence that exposure to airborne pollutants can affect cognitive function and increase the risk of developing dementia. These effects are likely due to the tiny particles of pollution that can enter the bloodstream and damage the brain. Studies have shown that people who live in areas with high levels of traffic-related pollution are more likely to suffer from cognitive decline and memory problems.

The good news is you can reduce your exposure to these harmful substances. For example, choosing to walk or cycle instead of driving can help to minimise traffic-related pollution, and spending time in green spaces has been shown to improve cognitive function.

Hopefully, further research will allow us better to understand the links between airborne pollutants and dementia and develop strategies to protect ourselves from these harmful substances.

We All Must Work Together

Dementia is complex; policy and individual contributions are significant in its prevention.

Early interventions, such as educational programs that promote brain health, can help reduce the risk of dementia later in life.

However, it is never too late to make changes that can improve brain health. Even people who have already been diagnosed with dementia can benefit from lifestyle modifications and treatments that can slow the progression of the disease.

Ultimately, dementia prevention is about both individuals and society working together to create a world where everyone can enjoy a healthy aging process.

Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about your memory or other thinking skills. Early diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions that can cause dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease and stroke, can help preserve cognitive function.

You can help protect yourself from this debilitating condition by taking some simple steps.

The Relationship Between Hearing Loss and Dementia​

There is a strong relationship between hearing loss and dementia. The connection between the two conditions is thought to be due to several factors.

People with hearing loss are more likely to develop dementia, and those with dementia are more likely to experience hearing loss.

The association between hearing loss and dementia is not entirely clear. It may be that the neuropathic changes and microvascular pathology associated with aging increase the risk of both hearing loss and cognitive decline. In other words, the same underlying changes leading to hearing loss can also lead to cognitive decline.

However, the exact nature of this relationship is still not fully understood. The loss of auditory input may lead to changes in the brain that contribute to cognitive decline. Or it could be that both hearing loss and cognitive decline are part of a general deterioration of brain function with age.

When someone struggles to hear, they have to expend much mental energy trying to make sense of the sounds around them, leading to fatigue and, ultimately, a decline in cognitive function.

Additionally, hearing loss can lead to social isolation and depression, which are linked to cognitive decline.

Finally, hearing loss can cause physical changes in the brain, such as neuropathic degeneration and sensory degradation. These changes can lead to brain atrophy, another factor in cognitive decline.

More research is needed to determine the exact nature of this relationship and how best to address it.

In the meantime, if you’re concerned about hearing loss or cognitive decline, talk to your audiologist or general practitioner.

4 Research Studies Linking Hearing Loss and Dementia​

Multiple studies have shown that hearing loss is an independent risk factor for the development of dementia, and the two conditions share many common risk factors, such as age and cardiovascular disease.

Moreover, hearing loss can lead to social isolation, linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline. While there is no cure for dementia, early diagnosis and treatment of hearing loss may help to slow its progression.

  1. A recent study examined the relationship between self-reported hearing loss, hearing aid use, and subjective cognitive function decline risk. The study tracked 10,107 US men over 12 years. The participants were divided into four groups based on their hearing loss: no hearing loss, mild hearing loss, moderate hearing loss, and severe hearing loss. The researchers found that men with any degree of hearing loss were more likely to experience subjective cognitive decline than those without hearing loss. Furthermore, the risk of cognitive decline increased with the severity of the hearing loss. Compared with men with no hearing loss, the risk of subjective cognitive decline was 30% higher among men with mild hearing loss and 42–54% higher among men with moderate or worse hearing loss.
  1. Researchers examined data from the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing’s (CHeBA) Sydney Memory and Ageing Study involving 1037 Australian adults aged 70-90 over six years. Their research found that those who reported moderate to severe hearing difficulties performed worse on cognitive tests, with particular deficits in attention/processing speed and visuospatial ability. This is the first study to confirm the link between hearing loss and mild cognitive impairment in an Australian cohort.
  1. In a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine study that tracked 639 adults over 12 years, Frank Lin, M.D., PhD and his colleagues found that those with mild hearing loss were twice as likely to develop dementia while those with moderate hearing loss were three times as likely. The risk was even more significant for those with severe hearing impairment, who were five times more likely to develop the condition.
  1. A 2017 study published in JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surgery found a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline. A systematic review and meta-analysis of 36 epidemiologic studies and 20,264 unique participants found that age-related hearing loss was significantly associated with a decline in all main cognitive domains and increased risk for cognitive impairment and incident dementia. This analysis suggests that hearing loss may be a modifiable risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia. The authors state that further research is needed to confirm these findings and examine the potential mechanisms underlying the association between hearing loss and cognition.

While more research is needed to understand the connection between hearing loss and dementia, these findings suggest that keeping your ears healthy as you age may also help keep your mind sharp. Talk to your audiologist or doctor if you’re concerned about hearing loss.

Treating Hearing Loss Early May Reduce Risk

Hearing loss can significantly impact quality of life, making communicating with others and participating in social activities challenging. Although it is often thought of as a normal part of aging, hearing loss can also be caused by exposure to loud noise, medical conditions, and certain medications. In addition, hearing loss has been linked to an increased risk of falls and injuries, as well as social isolation and depression.

Good hearing improves your quality of life and helps protect it in the future. Treating hearing loss could mean your brain doesn’t have to work intensely on your hearing anymore to pay attention to its other tasks. Hearing well again also means you can continue enjoying your relationships and independence, which helps maintain your cognitive function.

If you think you or someone you know may be experiencing hearing loss, please talk to your doctor or make an appointment with a certified audiologist. With early intervention, we can help people stay connected and reduce their risk of developing dementia.

Ear Health offers a range of services to help people with hearing loss get the most out of their lives. We want to help you maintain your brain health and cognitive function for as long as possible.

Contact us in Auckland or Christchurch today for a free consultation. We can help you find the best treatment for your needs.

Picture of Ron Trounson
Ron Trounson
Ron Trounson holds a Master of Audiology (with Distinction) from the University of Canterbury. He has been in the hearing industry since 2010 and has a broad knowledge of ear disorders, hearing loss, hearing aids and specialised hearing devices.

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