The evidence is already pretty clear that moderate -to-severe untreated hearing problems in the elderly contribute toward the development of dementia. Exactly how, and on what progression timeline, is not clear.
But treating hearing loss issues in the elderly will likely save a lot of money down the road on dementia-related care and housing, according to this article in today’s Washington Post:
Hearing loss in middle age — ages 45 to 65 — is the most significant risk factor for dementia, accounting for more than 8 percent of all dementia cases, research suggests. A 2020 Lancet report calculated that hearing loss approximately doubles the risk of dementia, akin to the increased risk caused by a traumatic brain injury. In addition, because hearing ability exists on a continuum, even subclinical hearing loss can mean a greater risk for dementia.
As a way of reducing the occurrence of dementia, addressing hearing loss is a win-win, said Frank Lin, the director of the Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s really common, it’s treatable, and there are interventions that come at no risk” that are underutilized, he said.
Preserving our ability to hear is foundational to public health “strategies that can best optimize the health of older adult population, so older adults are living a long and full life till the very, very end,” Lin said.
There are several overlapping hypotheses for why hearing loss in middle age is associated with a higher risk of dementia.
One hypothesis suggests that poor hearing increases the cognitive load on the brain, which needs to work harder, at the expense of other mental faculties, to decipher the garbled signals the ears send.
This may not be the best explanation, however, because those with hearing loss and declining cognition also struggle on tests that do not depend on hearing, said Tim Griffiths, a professor of cognitive neurology at Newcastle University in England.
Research on animals and humans has found that with the loss of hearing, the brain atrophies faster, especially in the temporal lobe — where key auditory and memory functions occur — potentially because of diminished use and stimulation.
Hearing loss may also cause aberrant activity in the temporal lobe, making it more susceptible to damage and pathologies associated with Alzheimer’s disease, Griffiths said.
In any case, the government finally got around to approving over-the-counter hearing aids — thanks Sens. Warren and Grassley and to the Biden administration — so let’s hope that more elders now get the hearing help they need.
Now what is really needed it to get Medicare and private insurance to cover these new, less expensive, assisted hearing devices.