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It’s the brain that controls hearing, but it needs good signals from the ears. With this said, aging adults with mild, moderate and severe hearing loss are more at risk to develop Alzheimer's disease and dementia. According to recent studies, scientific proof even puts hearing loss and the dementia connection above other factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure, age, sex and race.

Jane O'Connell, Aud, CCC-A, FAAA, has worked as an audiologist since 1988 and is currently working with patients at Midwest Ear, Nose and Throat Hearing Center. Throughout her career, she has encountered many patients who have had Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia in addition to their hearing loss.

And although the reason people with hearing loss are more likely to develop dementia is unknown, O'Connell says there have been some breakthroughs to uncovering the connection. "One thought is that the increased cognitive load that occurs from having to "de-code" words, which arrive in the brain with missing parts brought on by hearing loss, reduces the cognitive reserve or resiliency, placing them at higher risk for dementia.

Since Alzheimer's and dementia are not treatable conditions, this gives new hope for a better quality of life if hearing loss is detected. "Once a medically treatable condition has been ruled out, a hearing aid is often the best and only treatment for hearing loss" says O'Connell. "Hearing aids, of course, are not a treatment for Alzheimer's disease. The goal with hearing aids is to restore as much of the spectrum of hearing for conversational speech as possible."

Often times, patients are hesitant to receive hearing aids. In fact, O'Connell says that once hearing loss is diagnosed and hearing aids are recommended, most people wait an average of 7 years before actually getting them. "Having people come in and take the leap is the biggest obstacle," she adds.

And it's not just about having an improved quality of life, it could also improve cognitive functions. "When hearing loss goes untreated, the brain uses resources it would otherwise be able to use for various tasks in its attempt to compensate for the missing speech cues," O'Connell adds. "This taps into the person's cognitive reserve. Hearing aids can reduce the load for the individual, freeing up some of the brain’s other resources for their usual purposes." Another idea is that hearing loss can increase the likelihood of social isolation, which is also a known risk factor for dementia.

Another form of treatment is education. "Providing good communication strategies to patients and family members is important when someone has hearing loss. Examples such as not trying to speak to someone from another room, using face-to-face communication and avoiding background noise are a just a few ways." She adds there are also hearing stimulation "exercises" that can be employed which can challenge one's listening skills. 

Hearing loss generally develops slowly, which makes it hard to recognize. O'Connell stresses that since getting proper treatment for hearing loss is now known to reduce the risk of dementia, getting a hearing evaluation in mid-life may preserve quality of life as we age.

By: Jennifer Dumke - Sioux Falls Woman Magazine

Midwest Ear, Nose & Throat
2315 West 57th Street  •  Sioux Falls, South Dakota 57108  •  605-336-3503  •  Toll-free 888-336-3503  •  Fax 605-336-6010