September is World Alzheimer’s Month, and we encourage everyone to take some time this month to learn about the risk factors that can cause Alzheimer’s and dementia. Dementia is defined as a loss of cognitive functioning—thinking, remembering, and reasoning.
Cognitive decline is a common occurrence for people in their later years, but it is not considered a normal part of aging. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. By understanding the risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer’s, you can be empowered to take the steps to potentially avoid experiencing Alzheimer’s or dementia, and possibly reverse some cognitive decline. It is not always possible to avoid Alzheimer’s or dementia, but these twelve risk factors have been identified and published by Lancet in 2017 and 2020:
- Hearing loss
- Excessive alcohol use
- Head injury
- Air pollution
- Less education in early life
- Inadequate physical activity
- Social isolation
Hearing Loss and Dementia
Hearing loss is the most significant driving factor in the risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s. Studies have determined that even mild hearing loss doubles a person’s risk for dementia, while moderate hearing loss increases the risk threefold. Those with severe hearing loss are at five times the risk for dementia as a normal-hearing person.
Researchers note that, on an individual level, these risks should not be overstated. If your risk for dementia is very low, then even multiplying that risk by five will still be a very low number.
It is also important to note that hearing aids are the best way to mitigate the increased risk of dementia that hearing loss produces. Hearing loss tends to be a problem that causes other problems. The problem of hearing loss itself is that auditory information from the world cannot make its way to the brain. By treating hearing loss with hearing aids, this problem can be nearly or completely alleviated. And by delivering more information to the brain, the increased risk for dementia, Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline is drastically reduced.
Untreated hearing loss also tends to produce fertile ground for some of the other risk factors on the list. When we can’t hear as well as we used to, we tend to start avoiding social activity and going outside. Over time, if hearing loss is not treated, this can end up creating a lifestyle that involves less physical activity, more social isolation, and depression.
Perhaps it is because hearing loss tends to breed these other problems that it is so high on the list of risk factors for Alzheimer’s and dementia. It can be thought of as one a cornerstone that can lead to a decreased quality of life as we age. Hearing care professionals often talk about the “cascade of negative health outcomes” that tends to follow untreated hearing loss.
Treating Hearing Loss
Treating hearing loss is increasingly accepted as one of the most important things we can do to maintain our best health and well-being as we age. Because hearing loss is so common—affecting two-thirds of people over age 70—it has been well-studied and is now universally recommended amongst medical professionals and health organizations.
Should I Treat My Hearing Loss?
If hearing loss is causing issues in your life that are being noticed by either yourself or loved ones, it is likely time to start treating it with hearing aids. The best way to determine whether you have a degree of hearing loss that would benefit from the use of hearing aids is by getting a hearing test.
The Better Hearing Institute, a non-profit organization, recommends getting a hearing test once every decade until age 50, and once every three years thereafter. Those with a higher risk due to their medical history or occupation should be tested even more regularly. By getting a hearing test, you can obtain an objective measure of whether hearing aids can be of use to you.
Hearing aids today are tiny marvels of technology that can do much more than we might have imagined even 20 years ago. They can separate speech from background noise, assist with sound localization, automatically switch programs to match different environments, and even connect wirelessly to smartphones and other technology to stream phone calls and media. Most hearing aids today can be controlled with smartphone apps to allow discreet and simple adjustments whenever necessary.
If you or a loved one may be in need of hearing aids, take the steps during World Alzheimer’s Month to get your hearing tested and find out if hearing aids are right for you!