Is it hearing loss or dementia?

Is it hearing loss or dementia?

Does the person you care for tend to forget things, such as appointments? Do they get easily confused? Are they withdrawing from social situations? These changes may be early signs of Alzheimer’s or some other dementia. But it’s equally possible that the problem is hearing loss.

That is, it may not be a matter of their forgetting. They may not have heard what was going on to begin with, or misheard so they misunderstood. When in a crowded room with competing conversations, they may have trouble following the thread of the discussion. Many people with hearing loss amiably agree to things or simply nod because they don’t want to call attention to the fact that they really aren’t hearing very well.

Rather than make assumptions about your loved one’s cognitive abilities, ask the doctor to conduct a hearing test. If your relative does have hearing loss, wearing hearing aids can be a tremendous help. And, oddly enough, wearing hearing aids also significantly decreases the risk of dementia and/or slows down its progression.

Scientists are not quite sure why untreated hearing loss and dementia seem to go together, but hearing loss has been firmly established as one of twelve key risk factors. Those with untreated, mild hearing loss are twice as likely to develop dementia. The likelihood triples for those with moderate loss and is five times more likely with severe hearing impairment. Possible reasons include the following:

  • Lack of auditory stimulation causes parts of the brain that process sound and memory to atrophy or shrink.
  • People with hearing loss tend to withdraw from social situations. Lack of social contact is associated with greater risk of dementia and also depression. Depression can cause mental fuzziness and confusion, looking a lot like dementia.
  • When a brain is struggling to capture sounds, it “borrows” brain capacity from other regions, which then limits how well those regions of the brain can do their usual work.

Hearing aids can help. Among people at high risk for dementia—people with high blood pressure or diabetes, for instance—those who wore hearing aids were 50% less likely to develop cognitive decline. Hearing aids are not an immediate fix, like “glasses for ears.” They do take getting used to. But recognizing that hearing aids can not only improve hearing and social relationships, but also reduce the risk of dementia, may motivate your loved one to wear them.