July 20, 2024

Of all the risk factors that contribute to dementia, hearing loss is one of the most treatable, according to a special report from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH).

While people can’t change risk factors such as their family history, genetics or early-life education, studies now suggest that wearing hearing aids can slow the rate of cognitive decline, the report notes. “Addressing a loss in hearing is a practical and achievable way for aging adults to reduce the risk of cognitive decline,” the report states.

Studies suggest it’s important to address hearing loss early.

“Greater levels of hearing loss are associated with increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia over time,” said Frank Lin, M.D., a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, who was interviewed for the special report.

He said it’s encouraging that studies show that people who use hearing aids “actually do somewhat better than people who don’t use hearing aids” in cognitive function.

Lin led a randomized, controlled trial of hearing aids that was published last year in The Lancet. He and his colleagues found that older people at risk of dementia who wore hearing aids experienced 48 percent less cognitive decline over three years than peers who did not, as measured by annual assessments.

5 Signs That You May Be Losing Your Hearing

Answering yes to these questions may indicate you have hearing loss.

  1. Are you having trouble following conversations?
  2. Do you find yourself asking people to repeat things more often?
  3. Does it seem like other people “mumble too much?”
  4. Do you find the need to turn up the volume on the TV or radio? Do others complain that the volume is too loud?
  5. Do you avoid talking on the phone because it’s exhausting trying to make out what the other person says?

While hearing aids won’t make people smarter, Lin said, “the goal is to maintain the function you have for as long as possible.”

Hearing loss contributes to about 8 percent of global dementia cases, according to a report published in 2020 from the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention. Authors of that report singled out hearing loss as “the largest potentially modifiable risk factor” for dementia in the world.

A silent epidemic

Hearing loss is a common problem, especially as people age: 1 in 3 people age 65 to 74 has age-related hearing loss, along with 1 in 2 people age 75 and older, according to the report.

“Everyone seems to know someone with hearing loss, whether it’s someone who is just recognizing the early signs of hearing loss or someone who is in the process of getting a hearing aid,” said Lindsay Chura, senior research and policy adviser, and chief scientific officer of the GCBH. “Hearing loss can have wide-ranging effects on a person’s life, impacting their ability to work, enjoy hobbies and maintain relationships. This reduction in overall quality of life can lead to frustration and a decline in mental well-being.”

Left untreated, hearing loss increases the risk of social isolation, loneliness, depression and anxiety, the report states. Hearing loss also increases the risk of falls by preventing people from picking up on subtle sound cues in the environment that can help with balance. People with untreated hearing loss are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, or to retire early, according to the special report.

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