Celebrate World Alzheimer’s Month with a Hearing Test!

In Dementia & Alzheimer's by Kim Greive

Kim Greive

This September let’s take the opportunity to celebrate how far the Alzheimer’s research and care community has come! Although a cure has not yet been discovered, researchers have made great strides in understanding the nature of the disease, how it functions in the brain, and even some of the risk factors that are associated. With improved research, a cure or a treatment to slow down the process of cognitive decline might be right around the corner.

Another reason to celebrate is to honor the support, kindness, fortitude, and patience of all those people who are caring for their loved ones or patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. This caregiving can be at times thankless, so this month is an opportunity for the entire Alzheimer’s community to say a sincere “thank you”!

Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease

One of the conditions that has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia is hearing loss. And ever-growing body of academic literature demonstrates the connection between these two seemingly unrelated conditions.

Statistically, those who have hearing loss are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, and the pace of cognitive decline tends to be more rapid, as well. This relationship exists within groups that are otherwise similar in terms of demographics such as race, gender, age, education, and income, demonstrating that there is something powerful and unique about the relationship between hearing loss and dementia that goes beyond these other factors.

Yet, the question remains: why are hearing loss and dementia connected in this way? The methods used in research clarify that it is not a spurious relationship, masking another factor. Let’s take a look at the four prevailing theories that link hearing loss with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, pointing toward possible solutions that might reduce levels of dementia more generally.

The Four Ways that Alzheimer’s Might Be Linked to Hearing Loss

Leading researchers into this connection have hypothesized how the connection might work. The first possibility is the most obvious. Perhaps a physiological condition is causing both conditions at once. Take, for instance, high blood pressure. If it were difficult to transport enough oxygenated blood to the ears and the brain, then they would both be affected by that third factor, essentially eliminating their direct relationship. Dr. Frank Lin at Johns Hopkins University is skeptical about this theory. Statistical analyses have controlled for hypertension and other cardiovascular conditions to determine it isn’t likely the case.

The second major theory describes an increased “cognitive load” among people with hearing loss. As their minds scramble to understand the sounding world, including spoken conversations, their brains become overloaded with the struggle to make sense of things. Some researchers have witnessed this in action. When the brain struggles to hear, other areas of the brain that are usually devoted to complex thought are instead devoted to simply trying to understand speech. Perhaps this reallocation of brain effort can lead to a degenerative condition such as dementia.

A third theory points toward shrinking brain size. When a person has hearing loss, that region of the brain that is responsible for processing sound can actually lose gray matter. Just as other parts of the body that shrink when they are not being used, the brain might lose mass due to underuse of sound processing capability, and that shrinking size might have a relationship with dementia, as well.

The fourth major explanation for the relationship between hearing loss and dementia points to social isolation as an intermediate factor. A person with hearing loss might be less likely to engage in social activity, due to the anxiety and frustration involved. Those who are socially isolated also have higher rates of dementia, so this theory describes a potential chain reaction. In the latter three of these four theories, getting treatment for hearing loss in the form of hearing aids might be able to break the relationship. By making it easier to understand speech and to be socially involved, the brain might retain some of its resilience when memory and cognition problems present themselves later in life.

For these reasons, it is more important than ever to get a hearing test, so don’t delay contacting us to make an appointment!