The link between hearing loss and dementia

Older man getting his hearing aid adjusted by a doctor

Hearing loss and dementia are common conditions experienced by many older adults. Growing evidence reveals that the two may be related.

About 1 in 3 people between the ages of 65 and 74 has hearing loss. About 5% of people experience dementia by age 65, but that number jumps to 40% by the time they reach 85.   

“While we don’t have a clear cause and effect, a growing number of observational studies show an association between hearing loss and an increased risk for developing dementia,” says Daniel Murman, MD, Nebraska Medicine neurologist.

Observational studies are less conclusive than clinical trials because they are not controlled. In an observational study, a group of individuals is studied over a certain amount of time, and conclusions are drawn from those observations. However, there may be unmeasurable biases and variables that may impact those conclusions.

A clinical trial, on the other hand, would study a group of hearing-impaired individuals and would put them into two subsets. One group would use hearing aids and the other would not.

Nevertheless, mounting evidence points to a link. One large observational study of 400,000 people found a 40% increased risk of developing dementia in those individuals with hearing loss that did not use hearing aids, says Dr. Murman. Other studies show that this increased risk is removed when those with hearing loss use hearing aids.

Why this increased risk may occur is not completely understood, but there may be several contributing factors, explains Dr. Murman.

Why hearing loss may accelerate dementia

  • May lead to social withdrawal, isolation and depression, resulting in brain decline
  • May cause other people to exclude you because they think you have dementia, leading to brain decline
  • May use up other resources in the brain that would normally be used to retrieve information and formulate thoughts

How do you know if you have hearing loss? Consider these common telltale signs.

Signs that you may have hearing loss

  • Muffling of speech and other sounds
  • Trouble understanding words, especially in a crowd or noisy place
  • Asking others to speak more slowly, clearly or loudly
  • Turning up the volume of the television or radio
  • Difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds
  • Difficulty hearing female voices

Signs that you may have dementia

  • A change in memory or forgetfulness that is consistent
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Experiencing problems retrieving names and objects

Treating hearing loss may have a protective effect against the development of dementia. “Most dementias are progressive,” Dr. Murman says. “So even if you have developed dementia using hearing aids isn’t going to reverse it, but they may help slow the progression.

“The important message here is that hearing is important for your brain health and cognitive function. If you think you may be experiencing hearing loss, it’s important to get it diagnosed and get hearing aids, if needed.”

Experiencing hearing loss?
Schedule a hearing evaluation with one of our audiologists by calling 800.922.0000.