With September around the corner, we will soon be celebrating World Alzheimer’s Month. This annual commemoration allows us to honor all the people who are providing care for someone with Alzheimer’s or who have a loved one with the disease. We also celebrate those who are currently battling Alzheimer’s, and we look ahead toward better resources for Alzheimer’s research and support services. With these aspects of Alzheimer’s awareness in mind, how is a hearing test related? Although it might come as a surprise, hearing loss is highly correlated with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. As researchers continue to explore this connection, we can learn more about what they have already discovered about the joint likelihood of Alzheimer’s and hearing loss, as well as what you can do about it.
Alzheimer’s and Hearing Loss
Alzheimer’s disease is one of the forms of dementia that has been linked to hearing loss. Those who have untreated hearing loss are more likely to develop dementia. As well, once dementia sets in those who have untreated hearing loss demonstrate a faster rate of decline. What might be driving this relationship? Why are those with hearing loss so much more likely to develop dementia than their counterparts who do not have hearing loss? The research has not shown conclusively how the two conditions are related, but several recent studies are giving us better information about the two conditions. Those who have hearing loss show changes in their brain, even those who have mild hearing loss. A recent study took brain images of people with hearing loss and those who do not have hearing loss. Those who had even mild hearing loss activated different parts of their brain when processing language. Those who did not have hearing loss tended to use certain parts of their brains for basic auditory processing, and they devoted other parts of their brains to complex thought and processing. Those who had hearing loss, on the other hand, recruited some of those regions of the brain that are usually devoted to complex thought to the basic task of auditory processing. This study did not show conclusively that hearing loss causes atrophy in the regions of the frontal cortex that lead to dementia, but the imaging study was highly suggestive of how the connection might work at the level of brain chemistry and functioning.
Communication and Dementia
Other studies have shown a strong connection between language processing and dementia. We know that those who have dementia, including Alzheimer’s, tend to have trouble processing language, and they can forget words for things or have misunderstandings about meanings. Many experts think that working on language puzzles, such as crosswords, can improve brain functioning and keep it healthy longer in life. Although the brain is not a muscle, these experts make the analogy to mental “exercise,” used to “strengthen” the pathways that connect language and meaning. When a person has untreated hearing loss, communication becomes more difficult. Rather than forming a steady flow of connections between words, phrases, sentences, and meanings, these people hear fragments of sound. With these small units of sound so difficult to assemble into larger units of language, those with untreated hearing loss can become confused, agitated, or can tune out in conversations altogether. When these linguistic problems emerge, we can imagine how hearing loss might be connected to dementia, including Alzheimer’s. That natural flow between language and meaning can be broken, making it hard to get enough mental exercise.
One way you can celebrate World Alzheimer’s Month this September is to get a hearing test. This test will prepare you to get treatment for hearing loss as soon as it occurs. Getting treatment for hearing loss right away reduces some of the additional risk of dementia that we see. If you don’t yet have hearing loss, then this test will form a useful baseline measure for future tests. If you do have hearing loss, however, we can help connect you with treatment right away, help you stay fluent in your communication ability and mentally agile as the years go by. Why not make your hearing test appointment today?