Hearing loss affects two-thirds of Americans over the age of 70. Although hearing loss doesn’t necessarily cause dementia, it can lead to mild cognitive impairment for many older adults, which tends to progress to Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive disorders.
A recent Johns Hopkins study found that older adults with severe hearing loss were more likely to have dementia – a loss of memory, language, and problem-solving skills. However, those who used hearing aids had a lower incidence of dementia than those who did not.
“It is important to stay mentally, socially and physically active,” says Justin Lo Re, DO, a neurologist at Atlantic Health System. “When we allow our mental and social health to deteriorate, it leads to isolation, which accelerates cognitive decline.”
Signs of Hearing Loss
An ear, nose, and throat doctor can easily gauge if you have mild, moderate, or severe hearing loss by conducting a simple hearing test.
Here are a few clear warning signs:
- Difficulty hearing conversations and misunderstanding what people saying
- Asking people to repeat themselves in noisy places
- Turning up television or music volumes to extreme levels
- Feeling mentally and physically fatigued from straining to hear
“Many older adults don’t acknowledge their hearing difficulty and just go along with the conversation,” says Dr. Lo Re. “Sitting with others as a passive observer means you’re isolated and not actively involved in the interaction and, over time, this tends to lead to decreased participation in social activities.”
Staying Mentally and Socially Active
Dr. Lo Re explains that the key to cognitive health starts with mental and social stimulation and engagement. He acknowledges that having a hearing impairment can make it difficult to take up a new hobby or to forge a new friendship, but it’s imperative to do so.
“I tell my patients that it’s important to learn new skills because it forces the brain to make new neural connections,” says Dr. Lo Re. “If you’ve never learned a new language before, try it. Or, teach yourself to paint or play a musical instrument.”
Keeping Your Hearing Healthy
Hearing aid devices have come a long way in recent years. Although many older adults still have a preconception that hearing aids are bulky and visible, most hearing aids today are discreet and barely noticeable.
“I often recommend hearing tests for patients who come in about memory loss,” says Dr. Lo Re. “I typically start with the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), a tool to assess cognitive impairment. Then as part of the clinical workup, I may encourage a follow-up hearing assessment. If we determine a patient is experiencing moderate to severe hearing loss, a hearing aid is a great solution to stave off memory loss and confusion.”
Remember, prolonged and excessive exposure to loud noises can erode hearing over time. If you’ve experienced hearing loss and are looking for ways to protect and enhance your hearing, one of the best solutions is to get tested and maybe even fitted for a hearing aid. This is one of the best ways to keep your brain stimulated and active well into your golden years.
Be Proactive About Your Health
To stay safe and healthy, it's good to have a primary care provider who knows and understands your health history and wellness goals.