A new scientific report supports the probability that hearing loss is linked to cognitive decline, including dementia. These findings by renowned researcher Bridget Shield raise questions about how this connection can affect people with hearing loss and their loved ones.
Before we can begin exploring the link between hearing loss and dementia, we have to understand exactly what that link is.
What is dementia?
Dementia is a broad term used to cover the loss of any cognitive function. These can vary depending on the person; for some, memory and speech might be affected, while others might have trouble with problem solving and self-management. While dementia primarily occurs in seniors, people can begin exhibiting early signs of dementia in their adult years.
There are different types of dementia, though Alzheimer's disease is the most prevalent. Some people even have multiple types of dementia at once. Dementia is often irreversible, though efforts can be made to slow the disease's progress.
Massive studies have been done to determine the causes and effects of dementia in its various forms, but like most illnesses, new discoveries are constantly being made. The human brain is immensely complicated, and it is difficult to make any definitive claims.
However, many studies have begun focusing on possible contributors of dementia, and how other conditions might affect it. One such condition is hearing loss.
What is the link between hearing loss and dementia?
In a French study, 3,800 people were followed over the course of 25 years. The study recorded that elderly people who had untreated hearing loss were at greater risk of developing dementia as they grew older.* Because nearly two-thirds of American seniors have diagnosed hearing loss, this information hit hard.
Hearing loss is a prevalent issue among seniors, so learning that it contributes to another condition can cause people to feel concerned for the health of their loved ones. However, having hearing loss does not mean someone is guaranteed to develop dementia. The same study also found that hard of hearing people who used hearing aids were better protected against rapid cognitive decline.
While much can be said about the importance of hearing aids, this study revealed that they were a valuable tool in reducing the risk of dementia among people with hearing loss.
Why does hearing loss affect dementia?
As mentioned above, just having hearing loss does not determine whether someone will decline neurologically. Instead, we have to discuss the effects of hearing loss and cognitive decline, and how these contribute individually. Hearing loss can seriously impact the brain and mental health, which in turn can contribute to dementia.
There are three primary reasons that hearing loss might lead to dementia. Some or all of these factors contribute to why a hard-of-hearing person might develop Alzheimer's or another form of dementia later in life.
Cognitive load. The basic idea behind cognitive load is that the loss of a sense contributes to neurological stress. Because the brain is straining to understand what's happening around the person, it overworks itself and takes resources away from other functions – such as memory. After years of disuse, these areas of the brain begin to decline.
Neurological restructuring. The brain is a highly adaptable organ. When it encounters problems, it changes itself to solve those problems. For example, when someone begins losing a sense, the brain reorganizes. The part that handles hearing is diminished, and the brain begins drawing resources from other areas. Similar to cognitive load, this results in a heightened risk of dementia.
Social isolation. When people lack hearing, they have trouble communicating. Even if they learn sign language, they might struggle to communicate with those who don't know the language.
Interpreters might not always be present, and degrading motor skills can make writing and signing difficult. This lack of communication can cause language and memory skills to decline, and result in other mental health issues like depression. Studies show that depression also negatively impacts the brain, heightening the risk of dementia.
The findings of Bridget Shield
Bridget Shield’s extensive new scientific report headlined “Hearing Loss – Numbers and Costs” provides valuable insight into how much untreated hearing loss costs. This "cost" is a monetary measurement of how much quality of life and productivity were affected. According to the report, untreated disabling hearing loss costs the European Union 185 billion Euros each year. In the UK, for example, only 1 in 3 people with disabling hearing loss use hearing aids.
In many cases, untreated cases of hearing loss can worsen into more severe cases. In order to save money and preserve people's quality of life, steps need to be taken to help people get the hearing aids they need. If people receive treatment for their hearing conditions, they are less likely to develop dementia and can enjoy a healthier life.
The latest research suggests that hearing aid use reduces the rate of cognitive decline, according to the report. It adds: “It is likely that hearing aid users will be happier, healthier and wealthier, with a better overall quality of life, than hearing impaired people who do not use (hearing) aids.”**
How hearing aids can help
As mentioned above, those who use hearing aids are less at risk of developing dementia. They tend to be more social and their brains are better stimulated. They might be encouraged to partake in social interactions, go outside, and enjoy problem-solving activities.
All of these things help prevent dementia in their own way. While talking to someone and partaking in different activities might seem simple, they have a large impact. They encourage problem-solving and neurological stimulation and allow people to build memories. When someone finds themselves socially isolated and doesn't experience the chance to stimulate their brains with memories, the brain's cognitive functions can decline.
Hearing aids allow those with hearing loss, especially seniors, more independence and autonomy. When they can hear clearly, they are more likely to participate in activities that stimulate their brain. Even simple things like conversations, leisure activities, and going outside are important for their overall health.
However, not everyone is open to the idea of hearing aids, which presents a problem. In these cases, hearing aid design and positive influences can encourage them to accept help.
Alternative options to traditional hearing aids
Many people find themselves opposed to hearing aids, especially those of a more traditional variety. Clunky designs, lack of functionality, and other factors can make hearing aids an unattractive idea.
Styletto X from Signia challenges such negative biases against hearing aids. With full connectivity, these new devices offer the ability to stream audio and phone calls directly to your hearing aids. Combined with a unique ultra-slim design and portable rechargeability, they offer much more than your traditional hearing aids.
For those who feel ambivalent or negatively about hearing aids, Styletto X might be the development they were waiting for.
* Shield, B. (2018). Evaluation of the social and economic costs of hearing impairment. A report for Hear-It AISBL.
** Shield, B. (2018). Evaluation of the social and economic costs of hearing impairment. A report for Hear-It AISBL.