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The Connection Between Alzheimer’s, Hearing Loss, and Hearing Aids

Connection Between Alzheimer’s, Hearing Loss and Hearing Aids

Being diagnosed with dementia comes with its own challenges and frustrations that are unique from person to person. However, many people diagnosed with dementia also show correlated signs of hearing loss. 

The World Health Organisation defines dementia as a “progressive decline in cognitive function” affecting memory, thinking, language and learning capacity. With cognitive function spanning such a broad range of human abilities, extensive research has been done in this field that now suggests a link between hearing loss and Alzheimer’s disease. 

While it is not yet fully understood what specifically causes Alzheimer’s, adults with hearing loss have an increased risk for cognitive disorders, which can cause detrimental impacts on the ability to deal with these symptoms. 

While there are a lot of uncertainties, what we do know is that people with mild hearing loss are nearly twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s, and those with severe loss are five times more likely to develop this disease. 

There is clearly a correlation between hearing loss and Alzheimer’s, but the question remains; can methods for managing hearing loss also be effective for cognitive disorders? Keep reading to find out whether hearing aids can assist those with Alzheimer’s disease.

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Contributing to nearly 70% of all dementia cases in Australia, Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative brain disease resulting from nerve cell death that shrinks the brain. 

While Alzheimer’s typically affects older people, it should not be considered a normal part of ageing. Life expectancy is increasing, and the population is continuing to age, meaning the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease is likely to rise. This can be concerning considering that one in ten Australians over the age of 65 already live with Alzheimer’s.  

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s 

Early-onset Alzheimer’s is possible; however, it is rare, and symptoms don’t usually appear until a person’s mid-sixties. While symptoms can vary from person to person, they generally include:

  • Forgetting information that you have just recently learnt,
  • Forgetting people or places that you know well,
  • Regularly misplacing things, and not being able to retrace your steps, 
  • Losing track of days, time and places beyond normal confusion, 
  • Struggling to process information, questions, or directions, 
  • A general lack of enthusiasm for things you once enjoyed, 
  • Finding it difficult to create, set and follow plans,
  • Having difficulties following or engaging in conversations, 
  • Experiencing unpredictable mood and personality changes, 
  • Expressing poor judgment and the inability to make decisions, and;
  • Withdrawing from social situations. 

Treating Alzheimer’s disease

While no specific treatment is currently available to cure Alzheimer’s disease, certain options are available to help you maintain the effects of the disease. Medications and technologies, including hearing aids, can minimise the impact of dementia and make things a little easier. 

While we briefly mentioned the link between hearing loss and Alzheimer’s, let’s take a closer look at how potential hearing loss treatments can assist with dementia management.

Alzheimer’s are Linked

How Hearing Loss & Alzheimer’s are Linked

Alzheimer’s is a challenging disease to understand from a scientific and general perspective. This has meant that scientists rarely agree on what causes Alzheimer’s, and intense research is constantly being conducted. 

However, throughout this research, a few details can be understood with certainty. Firstly, there are three genes known as the ‘risk factor genes’ that have increased the risk of Alzheimer’s in older people. These risk factor genes trigger the production of plaques, tangles and other chemicals, which destroy neurons and their connections in parts of the brain. While this suggests the disease is more prevalent in older patients, it does not omit early-onset dementia. 

Additional studies have also indicated that the brain changes caused by hearing loss can aggravate issues and increase the risk of dementia. Three common theories suggest this correlation. However, it is likely a combination of the three.

1. Atrophy of the brain

Brain atrophy is defined as the loss of brain cells called neurons that destroy the connections between cells and the way they communicate. 

Studies have suggested that hearing loss can play a potential role in atrophy of the brain, revealing the consequent decline in cognitive function related to dementia. 

The basis behind this theory is that some brain cell structures may shrink if they don’t receive enough stimulation, and a lack of brain stimulation can occur within patients suffering from hearing loss. 

2. Overstimulation of the brain

Hearing naturally adds load on the brain, requiring it to use its resources to recognise and process stimuli from sound. 

For someone suffering from hearing loss, the brain has to work overtime to understand what people say. When this happens repeatedly and often, the brain can become extremely overwhelmed and overstimulated, indicating a link between Alzheimer’s. 

3. Social Isolation

Many studies, including research from the National Council on Aging, have found that untreated hearing loss can result in depression, anxiety and other mental health struggles that can contribute to a withdrawal from social situations. 

Specifically, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered that social isolation is shockingly common and associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia. 

Summarising the connection:

Ultimately, the less you stimulate your brain and actively hear and listen, the quicker your cognitive abilities decline, increasing your risk of developing dementia as a result. 

We can conclude from this that treatment and management for hearing loss may also be affected in bringing back a sense of normality for Alzheimer’s patients. On the contrary, it also suggests that taking control and care of your hearing health now may decrease your risk of suffering from dementia in the future.  

Alzheimer’s Patients

Hearing Aids & Alzheimer’s Patients 

To preface, hearing aids cannot cure Alzheimer’s disease. While hearing loss and Alzheimer’s are connected, this is a management tool, not a solution. Instead, you can look at it from the perspective of treating hearing loss to positively impact those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, helping to prevent cognitive decline.

Specifically, Alzheimer’s disease and age-related hearing loss are co-occurring conditions. Unfortunately, this means that communication difficulties are only exacerbated, causing stress in both the patient and their friends, families, and people they communicate with. 

On a positive note, hearing aids are made to help with communication difficulties and reduce overall stress on everyone involved. The modern technological advances in hearing aids mean they can also help Alzheimer’s patients regulate their cognitive load and participate in social situations.

Identifying hearing loss

Gaining a proper dementia diagnosis is understandably vital to help you manage your condition. The same goes for hearing loss as well. 

Most people who have mild hearing loss often don’t even realise it, especially when it comes on gradually. However, the connection between hearing loss and Alzheimer’s make hearing health a critical area of our wellbeing. 

It is important not to overlook your hearing abilities and seek professional advice the same way you would for your general health. While there are so many technologies and alternatives in place that means we don’t always have to rely on our hearing to communicate, there is truly no substitute for face to face communication. 

Visiting an accredited Audiologist for a simple hearing test can be the difference between hearing well or suffering the effects of severe, long term hearing loss. Such a hearing assessment typically includes an otoscopy, air and bone conduction and speech discrimination and can help identify whether a hearing aid could benefit you. 

Choosing hearing aids

After identifying if you are struggling with hearing loss and could, in turn, benefit from hearing aids, you now need to choose the right ones. 

As the most common treatment for mild to moderately severe hearing loss, hearing aids understandably come in a wide range of styles and brands, featuring different technologies and automation levels.  

No matter the type of hearing aid you purchase, it works to improve your overall quality of life by reducing the amount of effort required to listen, enabling you to focus on socialising and communicating. 

Getting a hearing test is the first step to taking control of your hearing health. However, we understand that a stigma surrounding visual hearing aids and hearing impairments exist, sometimes making it difficult for you to break down these mental barriers and ask for the support you need. 

Many Alzheimer’s patients have found it beneficial to attend the clinic with someone they trust for added support to help push through the mental barriers of getting treatment. When you seek advice for your hearing, it is important to be open-minded and offer truthful responses to any questions your audiologist may ask. This will ensure they can fit you with an appropriate hearing aid. 

Connecting the Dots

When it comes to your health and wellbeing, it is never advised to compromise. Your health determines your quality of life, including everything from your physical, mental and hearing health. 

The research surrounding dementia and hearing loss reinforces how important early prevention and management can be for Alzheimer’s patients. Take control today and find out whether a hearing aid could benefit your hearing and health conditions. 

You can contact the hearing care experts at Attune Hearing to take the first step in a comfortable and supportive environment.

Enquire now