Who would think that the loss of hearing and memory are in some way related? Although either can occur as a person ages, studies suggest a link between hearing loss and dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. One study found that the worse a person's hearing loss, the higher the risk that he or she may eventually develop dementia. Consequently, researchers speculate that identifying a hearing loss early on and treating it may prevent or at least delay the onset of dementia.
The Hearing Loss-Memory Connection
Hearing loss can make the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease worse. It may even be a risk factor for dementia and other cognitive problems—common symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Research suggests that constantly straining to hear what other people are saying stresses the brain, which eventually affects other brain functions.
A person's working memory and other cognitive functions may gradually decline as he or she puts more effort into listening. Brain imaging studies also show that older individuals who experience hearing loss have less gray matter in the part of the brain that controls hearing. Gray matter contains the nerve cells in the brain that transmit signals related to hearing and memory.
The Hearing Loss-Depression and Paranoia Factor
Hearing loss that goes untreated can lead to depression and anxiety—both symptoms often associated with Alzheimer's disease. Although the exact cause-and-effect relationship isn't certain, studies indicate that hearing loss and depression are related.
Since hearing loss makes it difficult to communicate with other people, hearing loss that progresses can lead to more severe depression. The paranoia that develops in some individuals with Alzheimer's disease and dementia may also be caused by untreated hearing loss. Hearing loss can leave individuals with a distorted perception of reality and they may think that other people are upset with them for no reason.
The Hearing Loss-Social Interaction Factor
Humans are social creatures by nature. They have an innate need to interact with their environment. But when brain cells aren't adequately stimulated, structures within them shrink. Damaged brain cells can cause memory loss and changes in thinking and other cognitive abilities; therefore, experts stress that brain stimulation continues to be an essential component of cognition at any age.
Like the other senses, hearing stimulates the brain and helps an individual feel connected to others and to his or her own feelings. It also helps individuals have a better understanding of what is happening around them.
Therefore, it's important for caregivers to help individuals with Alzheimer's disease remain mentally, socially, and physically active. Recognizing and treating hearing loss is important too since improved hearing can lead to better communication—an ability that can be negatively impacted as the disease progresses.