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Ask St. Joseph’s Clinic: Hearing loss linked to dementia

A study from John Hopkins University has linked a connection between hearing loss and dementia in the elderly population (those 75-85 years old).

They found that elderly individuals with hearing loss were much more likely to experience cognitive and memory problems compared to normal hearing individuals in the same age range.

This does not mean that hearing loss causes dementia, but it does show that hearing loss in the elderly population increases their risk for dementia. It also shows that the more hearing loss a person has, the greater their risk. Individuals with hearing loss were at two to five times increased risk depending on the severity of their hearing loss.

The main question that remains unanswered is, “What is the link between hearing loss and dementia?”

The two main connections are believed to be brain overload and social isolation.

When a hearing loss is present, the brain must work harder and use additional resources to help with auditory processing. By using these additional resources, we are reducing or limiting other brain functions — including focusing on working memory.

Another possible connection is social isolation. It is a major risk factor for dementia. Individuals with hearing loss tend to withdraw socially and isolate themselves, especially if the hearing loss is untreated. They communicate less frequently and are less likely to go out and engage in conversations.

Another question that will need to be answered as this connection studied further is, “Will treating a person’s hearing loss reduce their risk for dementia?” We do know that treating and compensating for hearing loss increases and improves communication and helps prevent social isolation, but can it help reduce people’s odds of developing dementia?

That is yet to be determined by future scientific studies. In the meantime, it’s clear that attending to hearing loss issues improves a person’s overall quality of life and, for that reason, anyone facing hearing loss is encouraged to meet with an audiologist and explore options for improving their hearing.

Ness is an audiologist at Badlands Ear, Nose & Throat Clinic, located at the north entrance of St. Joseph’s Medical Clinic, 227 16th Street West, Dickinson. To schedule an appointment, call 701-227-7920.