Hearing Loss and Dementia

New research suggests seniors with hearing loss are significantly more likely to develop dementia over time than those who retain their hearing.

RALEIGH — Sound adds color and helps us make sense of our world.

Think about it. What if you couldn’t hear rainfall, children laughing, or even the sounds of traffic as you walked along a busy city street. 

Here’s another example. Ask a friend or family member to talk to you with their hand clamped tightly over their mouth. It sounds mumbled or even garbled. That's how people with hearing loss, including Robin Canne, say their world sounds to them all the time.

“I really struggled because I would ask them to repeat themselves,” says Canne, whose world started becoming muffled when she was just 21. “It was really difficult. Sometimes it was embarrassing.”

A degenerative hearing disorder was taking her hearing.

Higher pitched sounds weren’t being heard at all. Word endings were gradually being lost as well. Canne says she started to learn coping skills, such as sitting near the sound system at conferences, or making sure people who were talking to her were looking straight at her. But gradually those coping skills weren’t enough and, as the condition worsened, she felt her world closing in.

“When it came to social settings I would exclude myself,” says Canne, as she looks off in the distance and recalls some painful memories. “I wouldn’t get in the midst of big conversations because if more than one person was talking at the same time, I couldn’t pick it up. I wasn’t as social as I used to be because I got nervous being in situations like that.”

She now admits her hearing impairment caused her work, relationships and social life to all suffer. 

And Canne is not alone in struggling with hearing issues. The federal government reports almost 48 million Americans suffer from some type of hearing loss. And hearing loss can affect everyone from toddlers to senior citizens. The symptoms range from tinnitus, otherwise known as a constant ringing in the ear, to total hearing loss.

But the problem is compounded for seniors. New research shows older adults with hearing loss are more likely to develop dementia over time. The exact reason isn’t known, but scientists speculate that hearing loss makes individuals more socially isolated, which is a known risk for dementia.

“Even a mild hearing loss doubles the risk of dementia, which is pretty astonishing, but it makes sense because mild hearing loss is also correlated with mild depression and isolation,” says Dr. Philip Griffin, Doctor of Audiology with Now Hear This, a clinic in Raleigh. “A lot of people ignore hearing loss because it is so gradual, but we’re finding that even a mild intervention with a hearing aide can make a huge difference.”

Hearing loss in seniors also increases the risk of falls and adds to diminished physical and mental health. Experts who work with seniors suffering with various forms of dementia say the research should be a wake up call.

“Seniors withdraw, when they can’t understand what is going on around them or they can’t hear or people think they are talking or acting funny,” says Alice Watkins, Director of Alzheimers NC. “Seniors withdraw and don’t talk anymore and they keep withdrawing farther and farther away. And this research shows it doesn’t have to be that way.”

The challenge is to get seniors as well as friends, family, and physicians to pay attention. Doctors say if a senior appears to not be hearing or seeing things as well as they used to, it is imperative to get the problem checked out because issues that affect hearing and vision are the most treatable.

“If the hearing signal doesn’t come through as clearly, eventually the parts of the brain that normally process auditory signals won’t be working as well and then the part of the brain that tries to make sense of it won’t be working as well either,” explains Dr. Daniel Kaufer, Associate Professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Dr. Kaufer is also the Director of the UNC Memory Disorder Program.

“It’s like a snowball going downhill because the net effect of all those issues together is going to be much more significant, as if it was one issue alone,” adds Dr. Kaufer.

As for Robin Canne, she got her first hearing aid when she was 40 years old. She says she’s gotten used to using them all the time, and it has gotten easier as the devices have gotten smaller and more sensitive through the years. Looking back, she says she’s thankful she took the big step to get help.

“It really does change your life,” says Canne. “When you’re hearing impaired, everything about your life, your work, your social life, your relationships is affected because hearing covers all of that and if you can’t hear it makes a huge difference.”

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