By Leanne O’Neil Fletcher, Au.D.

Chances are, dementia has touched your life in some way. Whether you care for someone who is suffering, know someone who has been recently diagnosed, or have already lost a loved one to this dreadful disease, Alzheimer’s and other dementias do not discriminate.

Much has been done to raise public awareness of Alzheimer’s and other dementias in recent years, and there’s no doubt – a heightened level of awareness does translate to progress on many levels. But the numbers are still devastating. An estimated 47.5 million people live with dementia, with a new case about every four seconds. And this number is expected to triple by 2050, according to the World Health Organization.

As researchers, scientists and other healthcare professionals work toward a cure, it is important that we do everything we can to stave off dementia for ourselves and the people we love. Of course, there are genetic predispositions that are beyond our control. But recently, a growing body of research – specifically, two studies compiled by Johns Hopkins – also link untreated age-related hearing loss to dementia.

How does hearing loss cause cognitive decline?

Our ears are responsible for bringing sounds in, but it is our brain that actually decodes those sounds into something we can understand – and therefore, hear. Because of this unbreakable ear-brain connection, we are beginning to understand that there is a higher level of cognitive function that is affected by unaddressed hearing loss, beyond the degradation of a listener’s ability to perceive sounds.

Brandeis University Professor of Neuroscience Dr. Arthur Wingfield has studied cognitive aging and the relationship between memory and hearing acuity for many years. In one study, Wingfield found that older adults with mild to moderate hearing loss performed poorer on cognitive tests of memory than those of the same age who had good hearing. Wingfield and his colleagues have hypothesized that when sensory stimulation is reduced due to hearing loss, the corresponding areas of the brain reorganize their activity as a result.

What is the hearing loss/dementia link?

The exact reason for the link between hearing loss and dementia is unknown, but researchers suggest that by continually having to decode sounds with a “weak signal,” the brain of a person with untreated hearing loss gets overworked. This constant strain can result in fewer cognitive resources to expend on other functions, such as memory. In addition, people with hearing impairments often feel socially isolated, as they tend to miss out on conversations. Losing a sense of social connection is a known risk factor for dementia, so adding hearing loss to the mix will only intensify that risk.

Hearing aids can help, both cognitively and socially

Research is ongoing, but experts believe that professionally fitted hearing aids could potentially delay or reduce the risk of developing dementia. Certainly, this type of intervention would provide relief for a brain that constantly works overtime to decipher sounds. But perhaps a renewed feeling of connectedness is just as critical as a more rested cognitive center. A hearing aid has the potential to bring someone with hearing loss back into the fold of their community, allowing them to take part in conversations instead of feeling excluded from them. Countless studies have shown that staying connected with friends and family can have an incredibly positive impact on our health as we age, and maintaining these social connections is largely dependent on our ability to hear.

Leanne O’Neil Fletcher, Au.D., and her business partner, Tiffany Pfleger, Au.D., operate Advanced Audiology Associates Inc. with offices in Mashpee and Dennis. Please visit hearingonthecape.com to contact either doctor or for more information.

This article was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Health & Wealth.