The Link Between Hearing Loss And Dementia

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Navigating age-related changes isn’t always easy

As we age, we may experience new sensations like waking up with aches and pains for no particular reason, experiencing a slowing metabolism, or living with reduced mobility. Hearing loss, too, is often associated with aging. While it's commonly believed to be a relatively harmless condition with many causes, recent studies have linked hearing issues and dementia. Understanding how the two may be connected can help you take steps to safeguard both your ears and mind now and into the future. It can be helpful to maintain social connections, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and continue learning throughout your life. Therapy can also be a helpful tool to promote good mental and cognitive health.

What is the link between hearing loss and dementia?

Over the past several years, multiple studies have found that those who experience moderate hearing loss as they age may be at an increased risk of developing dementia. This could be a significant finding, considering the World Health Organization reports that there are usually around 10 million new cases of dementia around the world each year, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common form of the illness. With two-thirds of Americans typically experiencing hearing problems by the time they reach their 70s, it seems that taking steps to limit damage to our ears may help many people.

What does the research say?

Frank Lin, an otologist and epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has been behind several leading studies exploring the potential link between hearing loss and dementia. In 2011, Lin and several of his colleagues conducted a study meant to help determine whether hearing loss may be associated with dementia. They followed most of the group of participants for 12 years, with some being followed for as long as 18 years. 

When the study concluded, the researchers discovered that the worse a person's hearing loss was, the higher the chance that they would develop dementia. In fact, those who had moderate hearing loss were generally found to be three times more likely to develop dementia.

Other cognitive processes and impairments

The researchers in Lin’s study noted that there is some possibility that both hearing loss and cognitive impairment that progresses over time, as is seen in dementia, may stem from common causes. In other words, changes in the brain as a person ages might lead to dementia, hearing loss, or some combination of the two. The team also argued that misdiagnosing hearing loss and its impact on cognitive abilities as dementia (or vice versa) may be part of the reason behind this apparent link.

Another theory suggested that the increased levels of effort those with hearing loss were required to make to hear conversations could take away from other cognitive processes. Proponents of this theory usually believe that this continued effort can potentially diminish the resiliency of the brain over time.

Additionally, another study exploring these topics that took brain scans of participants found that the brains of adults with hearing loss usually have physical differences, including less gray matter in the areas of the brain used for processing sound. This suggests that there may be some truth to the assumption that hearing impairment can lead to cognitive decline. While such a phenomenon doesn’t necessarily mean hearing loss directly causes dementia, it may mean that the two are more likely to occur together or that preventing hearing loss may lessen a person’s risk of further cognitive decline later in life.

How to manage the effects of hearing loss

If you have hearing loss, you don’t necessarily have to take a wait-and-see approach when it comes to your cognitive function or a decline in your ability to think, learn, and engage with others. There are some simple lifestyle habits you can develop to promote brain health, which may help you address both hearing loss and the potential of developing dementia.

  1. Stay social

Social relationships can be a great way to boost your brain health as you age. It can be wise to build and maintain relationships with friends and family members that you enjoy interacting with. Engaging with others can boost brain health in multiple ways. It can facilitate the learning of new information about others, remembering and retaining new information, and listening. In sum, engaging in conversations with others can encourage your brain to remain active and prevent you from feeling socially isolated.

  1. Try a Mediterranean diet

There can be many reasons to make healthy eating choices, and now you can add another reason to that list. Some doctors recommend sticking to a Mediterranean diet to improve heart and brain health. This diet generally consists of eating foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, potatoes, nuts, seeds, legumes, fish, and olive oil.

An article in Science Daily describes a study that involved watching the diets and cognitive abilities of over 5,900 older adults. The article states, "They found that older people who ate the Mediterranean and MIND-style diets scored significantly better on the cognitive function tests than those who ate less healthy diets. Older people who ate a Mediterranean-style diet had a 35% lower risk of scoring poorly on the cognitive test."

  1. Make exercise a part of your routine

You’re likely no stranger to how important exercise can be for your physical and mental health, but it can also improve your brain health and memory. A study conducted by the University of British Columbia found that aerobic exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus, which is typically responsible for learning and verbal memory. It's recommended that you exercise around five days a week for 30 minutes at a time.

  1. Use your brain

Lifelong learning can be an effective way to ward off dementia and make your brain work harder. Some studies have demonstrated that those with a higher level of education tend to have a lower risk of developing dementia. Other studies have found that maintaining an 8th-grade reading level might keep your brain healthy and your mind active.

Another way to continue to use your brain, other than through reading and formal education, can be by picking up new hobbies. This could be learning to speak a new language, playing board games, sewing, or dancing. Look for ways to keep your brain learning new things as you age.

How to navigate other signs of dementia

Other than early symptoms of dementia, there may be other side effects of hearing loss that people might not anticipate. These can include mental health disorders like depression. As previously mentioned, hearing loss can lead to isolation from others. This, in turn, can contribute to loneliness and depression. Likewise, dementia can contribute to mental health disorders due to changes in the brain and the emotional weight it can put on a person.

Navigating age-related changes isn’t always easy

How online therapy can help

Whether you’re looking to stimulate your mind, find support, or simply learn more about your concerns and how they might relate to your cognitive health, you may want to consider pursuing online therapy. Because you can attend sessions from the comfort of your own home, online therapy can help you save time and money that might otherwise be spent commuting to and from in-office appointments. It may also allow you to find a quiet and calm location to speak with your therapists without distractions or background noise.

Receiving professional support can help you manage mental health symptoms and stave off the changes that may come with aging and hearing loss. A new study focusing on the benefits of online cognitive behavioral therapy found it could lead to significant decreases in symptoms related to anxiety, depression, PTSD, panic disorder, and more. Even if you aren’t living with a mental illness, it’s likely you can still benefit from online therapy’s ability to connect you with someone who understands your experiences.

Takeaway

Because both hearing loss and dementia can be tied to cognitive function and changes in the brain over time, it’s not impossible to experience signs of either or both as you age. However, there are some things you can do to lessen your risk of either issue. Taking good care of your brain, practicing good lifestyle habits, and seeking professional help as needed can help you live a long, healthy, and happy life. One way to seek the help of a licensed mental health professional can be through an online therapy platform.
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