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The Connection Between Alzheimer's and Hearing Loss

Kristen Hicks
By Kristen HicksApril 13, 2018

Every family touched by Alzheimer’s disease knows how much it can take over the lives of the people that have it. Knowing how many people it affects and how much an influence it has on people’s lives, many researchers have devoted years trying to better understand the disease. While a cure is still out of our reach, every new study can bring us closer to piecing together what causes the worst symptoms of the disease and what people may be able to do to reduce their risk or slow the onset.

One such recent study found a potentially important link between Alzheimer’s and hearing loss.

New Research Links Alzheimer’s and Hearing Loss

Over the past few years, researchers at Johns Hopkins have done studies looking at how hearing loss may influence cognitive decline. In each case, they met with a number of seniors over several years and tracked which ones developed Alzheimer’s and how quickly the disease progressed. In each study, the people with hearing loss had higher rates of dementia.

In one study, people with hearing loss were 24% more likely to have Alzheimer’s. In another, they found that the worse the hearing loss was, the more likely the person was to develop dementia.

These studies don’t suggest that hearing loss itself causes dementia, but it does show that there’s a link between the two. The researchers have a few theories on why that might be:

  1. Change in brain function: The particular part of your brain in charge of hearing and processing auditory information may simply start to work differently when the hearing part of that equation goes away (or becomes strained), causing a change to how your brain is structured, which could be related to the effects of Alzheimer’s.
  2. Cognitive load: When you can’t hear well, you have to work a lot harder to make sense of what people are saying. Every conversation you participate in requires more mental energy and work. If your everyday conversations are taking up most of the mental energy you have, then there’s less left for you to put toward memory or other cognitive functions.
  3. Social isolation: We know that social isolation can have some very serious effects on both physical and mental health. When it’s hard to hear, it becomes harder to maintain social connections, which can lead to feeling alienated and experiencing all the negative effects of social isolation and loneliness.
  4. They share a cause: The researchers behind the study are confident they managed to control this, but concede there is some possibility Alzheimer’s and hearing loss may both be caused by some third health issue that people who experienced both in the study shared.

Though we don’t know if the relationship between Alzheimer’s and hearing loss is due to one of these things or some combination of them, but simply knowing the relationship exists is a step toward being able to do something about it.

What This Means for People With Alzheimer’s

First off, it’s important to note that having hearing loss doesn’t mean your loved one is going to develop Alzheimer’s. Many people begin to have trouble hearing in their senior years and manage to live out those years without experiencing dementia. But the link does suggest to us that if we can do something to minimize hearing loss, there’s a decent chance that we can also minimize the likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s or the severity of it if someone does get it.

In fact, there’s an additional study that bears this theory out. Researchers at a hospital in Paris provided a number of people with deafness in at least one ear with a cochlear implant and tracked their cognitive performance before and after receiving the implant along with auditory rehabilitation. 80% of the people studied showed cognitive improvement within a year. For comparison, those are better results by nearly double than any FDA-approved drugs for treating dementia.

Any senior experiencing hearing loss should make a point to seek out treatments for it. Not only will it make it much easier to communicate with friends and loved ones and continue to participate in the many everyday activities that require hearing, but it could help them avoid or stave off Alzheimer’s for longer.

That’s well worth the cost of treatment in and of itself.

Were you aware of the connection between Alzheimer’s and hearing loss? Will you seek treatment for the two? We’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Kristen Hicks

Kristen Hicks

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