Although research is ongoing, studies have shown a definitive link between hearing loss and dementia. Researchers at Johns Hopkins found that hearing loss accelerated cognitive decline in older individuals and that seniors with hearing loss were significantly more likely to develop dementia over time, compared with seniors who retained their hearing or used a hearing aid. Johns Hopkins also studied the link between hearing loss and accelerated brain tissue loss, finding that brain tissue deterioration happened faster in older adults with hearing loss than with those who had normal hearing.
Because of these studies, Audiologist Joseph Gillespie of East Cooper Hearing Center has become an advocate for hearing aids.
"These findings are concerning," he said. "The evidence is building that if you have some degree of hearing loss, your chances of developing a dementia disorder are much higher."
His recommendation is that people have their hearing screened at a young age due to noise-induced hearing loss.
"I think high school seniors need a hearing test," he said. "At the very least, people should have a screening when they turn 40."
The sooner the problem is addressed, the better the outcome.
"If you are experiencing hearing loss and still have all your normal cognitive functions, you should definitely look into getting a hearing aid," he said.
Gillespie pointed out that one in three people over the age of 65 have hearing loss and need a hearing aid. He also said that number jumps up two out of three for people over the age of 80.
He mentioned that many people avoid getting a hearing aid, even though they admit to having some degree of hearing loss, due to the sheer inconvenience of keeping up with one. He added that many people don't see the benefit of using a hearing aid.
"Maybe they feel they can hear most of the time but only experience an issue in certain situations. Unfortunately, that is enough to cause a problem, and it could be worse than they think," Gillespie said, adding that cost also is an issue. "Most insurance policies do not cover it. I am hoping that changes soon."
Whatever the reason, the benefits of hearing aids far outweigh the negatives.
"Being able to hear clearly is a sensation like no other," Gillespie exclaimed. "Not having to struggle to read lips or stress about the fact that you won't hear what the other person is saying can really make a difference in your overall quality of life."
When people have a hard time hearing, their brain is working on overdrive to comprehend and process what is being said.
Gillespie explained that hearing aids are becoming "smarter and smarter." One of the newer hearing aids by Widex actually allows the user to select preferences that the hearing aid will learn and remember and therefore adjust in future situations.
"The person will be in a difficult situation that is noisy, for example, and the hearing aid will adjust and ask the person if they are hearing better," Gillespie said. "They can press yes or no. If no, the hearing aid will continue to offer alternatives until the person can hear better. The hearing aid will then remember the preferences for future similar situations."
Gillespie said the new Widex hearing aids are producing results.
"Hearing aids are reproducing sounds beautifully and are worth looking into," he commented.
Either way, studies have shown that not using a hearing aid to counteract hearing loss can increase the chances of developing dementia disorders. "More research needs to be done on the hearing loss and dementia relationship, but, unfortunately, the evidence is building," he concluded.