Celebrate World Alzheimer’s Month with a Hearing Test! 

In Dementia & Alzheimer's Disease by Peter Lucier, HIS

Peter Lucier, HIS

Launched by Alzheimer’s Disease International, this month is dedicated to raising awareness and taking action. Alzheimer’s disease is the most severe form of dementia, impacting nearly 6 million people in the U.S. alone. Dementia refers to a group of chronic conditions that cause cognitive decline: memory, problem solving, thinking, concentrating etc. 

There are different types of dementia but Alzheimer’s disease is the most common, accounting for 60-80% of all cases. The number of people impacted by Alzheimer’s disease is expected to more than double by 2050 which is why there is a global movement to better address the disease. Currently, there is no cure so there is significant emphasis on ways to delay or prevent cognitive decline. One way that has been identified is by treating hearing loss. 

Understanding Hearing Loss

Over 40 million people in the U.S. have some degree of hearing loss. There are numerous factors that cause hearing loss including environmental exposure to loud noise, aging, existing medical conditions, and genetic history. The most common type is sensorineural hearing loss which accounts for 90% of the hearing loss that people experience. Sensorineural hearing loss results from damage in the inner ear which disrupts the auditory system, a complex process consisting of the:

  • Outer ear: absorbs soundwaves from the environment which travels down the ear canal and lands on the eardrum, causing it to vibrate. 
  • Middle ear: the movement of the ear drum triggers the ossicles, three tiny bones that are connected, which helps propel the soundwaves further into the inner ear.
  • Inner ear: where the cochlea is activated. The cochlea consists of thousands of hair cells and fluid which help translate soundwaves into electrical signals. These signals travel through nerve pathways and reach the brain where they are processed and this is how we are able to understand what we hear. 

Typically, hearing loss happens when the hair cells in the inner ear are impaired. These hair cells do not regenerate which means that when they lose sensitivity, this damage is permanent. 

Hearing loss makes it difficult to hear clearly and process sound, causing a range of symptoms including: 

  • Tinnitus: a buzzing, clicking, or ringing like noise in one or both ears 
  • Sounds are muffled making it difficult to follow conversations 
  • Increasing the volume on electronic devices 
  • Asking others to speak loudly and/or slowly 
  • Difficulty hearing, especially in places with background noise 
  • Frequently needing others to repeat themselves 
  • Moving to a quieter area to have a conversation 
  • Being able to hear better in one ear over the other 

These symptoms can be experienced mildly to profoundly, significantly straining communication and daily life. 

Link Between Alzheimer’s & Hearing Loss 

Alzheimer’s and hearing loss are both chronic medical conditions that disproportionately impact older adults:

  • Hearing loss:
    • 25% of adults ages 65-74 have hearing loss 
    • 50% of adults 75 and older have hearing loss 
  • Alzheimer’s:
    • 1 in 10 adults 65 and older have Alzheimer’s
    • 80% of people who have Alzheimer’s are 75 and older

The link and overlap of these conditions has been investigated for some time and research shows that hearing loss actually increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Studies show that:

  • mild hearing loss can double the risk 
  • moderate hearing loss can triple the risk

This significant correlation highlights that the severity of hearing loss also increases the likelihood of cognitive decline. It remains unclear how exactly this happens but researchers suggest that hearing loss can impair overall cognitive function by: overloading the brain, causing parts of the brain to be inactive, and/or reducing the amount of stimulation the brain receives from conversation which can become limited.    

Treating Hearing Loss

Identifying and treating hearing loss can then reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The best way to address your hearing health is by first taking a hearing test. 

Hearing tests measure your hearing ability in both ears which determines any impairment and the degree. There are effective ways to treat impaired hearing which can drastically improve hearing and overall health. So, take part in World Alzheimer’s Month by scheduling an appointment for a hearing test!