A recently much publicized report from a group of experts about how to prevent dementia included hearing loss in mid-life as one of the 9 major risk factors that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other forms of dementias, although if you have followed this issue closely over the years, you’d already know that studies have made that link in the past, namely that people with hearing loss have a higher risk of developing dementia.
They can’t be sure, of course, simply because no one can say for certain which is the cart in this connection and which is the horse, that is people who are going to get AD anyway might develop hearing loss early in life as one part of that disease.
The more likely explanation though and the one that makes most sense is that because brain cells are so interconnected, when you shut off part of your brain with any sensory loss (but perhaps especially with hearing loss?), other parts of your brain get negatively affected as well.
And clearly the longer a part of the brain is not used, the greater the chance that more damage will accrue, so that hearing loss earlier in life should be linked to an increased risk for cognitive decline and dementia more surely than would hearing loss much later in life, and that is indeed what this report stressed.
This should be particularly scary news to a whole lot of people out there because studies have shown that hearing loss is becoming significantly more prevalent at ever-younger ages – those damnable always-in the ear buds that so many young people (even lots of older people who really should know better) are wearing and which allow them to shut out the world (baristas asking, “Do you want that chai latte to go?”, health bar servers wondering, “Do you want cranberry ketchup with your tofu-kale salad and zucchini fries?”, cars honking as the ear-plugged cross dangerously against a red light, cyclists swearing volubly as they’re cut off by another out-of-it pedestrian listening to Jay-Z or if he’s really old, Billy Joel or Neil Diamond).
One issue that this report could not address adequately: Does treating hearing loss lower the risk of dementia?.
Stands to reason that it should, and preliminary studies have pointed in that direction, but it will take a huge prospective study over a good number of years to definitively nail down this vital issue.
But one thing that doesn’t need to be nailed down more definitely about hearing loss is this.
If you just ask anyone living with a person with diminished hearing, you will discover in 100 % of instances that they will tell you that when someone who has hearing loss can hear the people around them again, the quality of their life shoots up.
As does that of the people around them.