So what happens when people ignore their hearing loss for 10 or 20 years? An 89 year old patient I saw recently may present a clue. She has a moderately severe hearing loss in each ear. What this means is that you have to speak directly into her ear in a distinct, moderately strong voice for her to understand you. She has never worn hearing aids. She has dementia. What happens to the brain when one of its primary inputs is taken away? What happens to the mind when you see people talking all around you but understand none of it? What if this goes on for years and years?
Researchers at Johns Hopkins recently completed a 12 year study of over 600 people in order to examine the possibility that dementia and hearing loss are somehow related. None of the people had dementia at the start of the study. What researchers found is that there is a correlation between severity of hearing loss and risk for dementia. They’re not saying causation, not yet. But the correlation they found was interesting. Study subjects with a mild hearing loss were at 2X the normal risk for dementia. Subjects with a moderate hearing loss had a 3X risk. And subjects with a severe hearing loss had a 5X risk for developing dementia.
This study gave me a renewed sense of purpose in my profession. When I fit people with appropriate amplification, in the form of hearing aids or other devices, then perhaps I’m helping to delay the onset of dementia. I would like to think so but the hard evidence that hearing aids delay or prevent dementia is not yet in. Still, given the evidence from this study, I would err on the safe side. I would ensure the best possible hearing for myself and those I love.
So how do you get the best possible hearing? I’ll address that thorny question in my next post! (The answer may surprise you.)