A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Are hearing loss and dementia related?

Illustration - Sound wave with question mark

Just when you’re starting to cope with mom’s hearing loss, it seems she’s also developing some kind of memory loss or dementia. Is her hearing loss causing the dementia?

That’s a question nobody has been able to answer definitively. A major study underway at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine — and similar studies from recent years — suggests there is a relationship between hearing loss and dementia. The reason is still unknown, however, and research continues.

Clearing up confusion

“Very often we have patients who have both hearing loss and dementia,” said Kelly Schultz, a Marshfield Clinic audiologist. “But sometimes we find that, once we treat the hearing loss with hearing aids, we are able to clear up a lot of confusion related to the hearing loss. The family, patient and providers can now focus on those symptoms truly related to dementia.”

Some research suggests hearing loss forces a person to spend so much energy trying to hear that other abilities of the brain are not used. Picture someone trying desperately to hear someone else; they sit up straight, lean in, hold their breath and read the other person’s lips. Those things all take energy to keep in focus.

Becoming isolated

After time, people with hearing loss find it harder to enjoy things like going to church, a fish fry or an athletic event. The background noise is simply too intense.

That tends to lead the person with hearing loss to become isolated, leaving them more vulnerable to dementia. Such people are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety, anger and even paranoia about being all alone. Yet they still don’t want to be seen in public.

Hearing aids, for some, are tied to the stigma that they’re only for “old people.” Schultz said she wishes more people would just try today’s hearing aids. The new ones are smaller and not as visible as earlier versions.

Relaxed listening

“Once people put them in, they can begin to relax while listening, enjoy a social life again and have their quality of life return,” she said.

Schultz and her colleagues have not conducted formal research, but have made their observations based on conversations with patients and family members.

People with a family history of hearing loss and/or dementia should contact their doctor to keep the affliction from getting worse and therefore harder to treat, Schultz said.

  1. Sep 4, 2018

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