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Hearing Loss in old age and risk of Dementia!

Updated: May 22, 2023

You'd think addressing hearing loss isn't as urgent as addressing diabetes or heart problems, but did you know that untreated hearing loss could put you at a higher risk of dementia?

Mr. and Mrs. Sharma live in their retirement home. Every morning and evening, Mr. Sharma goes for a walk with his friends and stops on the way for a nice cup of chai. Part of his routine during these walks also includes his constant complaint about his wife.

Mr. Gupta comes by to pluck flowers from Mr. and Mrs. Sharma’s house before the walk. He sees Mr. Sharma coming towards the door and asks, “Mr. Sharma, why do you look grumpy in the very morning? What is wrong?”

Mr. Sharma replies, “Ugh! Don’t even get me started on it! My wife switches on the TV at 6 in the morning to listen to her horoscope, and she keeps the volume so high, I can’t even sleep!”

Mr. Gupta asks him, “perhaps she can’t hear so well? Maybe that’s why she keeps the TV volume so high?”

Mr. Sharma gives this suggestion some thought and decides to talk to his wife about this. “But I can hear what you are saying perfectly well right now! What are you talking about?” asks Mrs. Sharma clearly annoyed.

Few years pass by but Mr. Sharma’s annoyance in the morning has only increased towards his wife. During his walk, he complains to Mr. Gupta that his wife had not only kept the TV volume as loud as ever, but also forgot to turn off the gas while heating the milk. “She and her TV! The milk had spilt everywhere! I kept yelling at her to turn the off the gas stove, but she was engrossed in her stupid TV! My throat now hurts because of her! That woman is getting more and more stupid with age, I tell you!”. Listening to Mr. Sharma’s complaints every day, Mr. Gupta snaps at him, “Aye Mr. Sharma! Either do something about your wife or quit complaining. It is enough I have to hear you two yelling at each other at home all day. I don’t want MY mornings ruined with your cribbing!”

Mr. Sharma feels upset and tells his daughter about the conversation with Mr. Gupta. His daughter suggests that may be Mrs. Sharma should be taken to an audiologist and have her hearing tested.

Surely, most of us have met someone with a similar story!

1 in 3 people above the age of 65 years have a disabling hearing loss. Most people do not realize their hearing is debilitating until much later. This is because age related hearing loss worsens gradually over the years.

Most people tend to think, “So what? If I don’t feel that I have hearing loss, it isn’t affecting me!” Hearing loss may not be handicapping in the initial stages, but not doing anything about it could affect your brain and memory!

That’s right. Hearing loss not only affects your ability to hear the sounds around you and communicate, but also increases the risk of dementia and shrinks your brain if left untreated.

Ummm what? How?

Our ears help in perceiving sounds, but it is our brain that processes it and makes sense of all the sounds we hear. In the presence of hearing loss due to some damage or degeneration in our auditory system, no information is reaching the brain. This means, our brain cells and their connections have no work to do. In the absence of such stimulation, the part of our brain responsible of audition will either atrophy or is reassigned for other functions such as vision. The absence of stimulation to the brain therefore results in auditory deprivation, and hampers the brain’s ability to understand and process information. Auditory deprivation not just happens in cases with severe hearing loss, it can happen to people who have mild hearing loss too! When this happens, using a hearing aid at a much later stage may not entirely undo these changes either.

So, you either use it, or you lose it!

In other words, the longer you have hearing loss, the more auditory deprivation you will have. So, even after you wear hearing aids, you will seem to only hear people, but since your brain has a hard time processing and making sense of the information it got, you will complain that you cannot understand what they are saying to you.

But that is not it! The aging brain’s function also deteriorates at a much faster rate. This means that all those cognitive functions decline at a faster rate due to aging. This also includes decline in the memory. Individuals with untreated hearing loss are at a higher risk of dementia. So, auditory deprivation not only shrinks the auditory part of your brain but also can affect the overall functioning of the brain and result in an accelerated degeneration.

Even when you have mild untreated hearing loss, your brain is putting in a lot of effort to fill in the information you failed to hear. Even more effort is required when you are trying to listen to someone in the presence of a lot of background noise. This results in fatigue.

What can you do about it?

Get yourself tested. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) recommends that adults get a hearing screening every 10 years up until age 50, and after that, once every three years.

Get help for your hearing loss. Studies suggest that even after the diagnosis, people wait for an average of 10 years to get hearing aids that can help their hearing. Sooner you seek help, more graceful will be your aging!

Train your ears. Hearing aids may take a while to get adjusted to. Most people require a few to several weeks to feel comfortable using hearing aids. Train your ears to get used to this newly amplified hearing. Just because you felt uncomfortable using hearing aids initially, do not take it off. Wear it at all times. If you feel uncomfortable using them even after several weeks, visit your audiologist so that they can fine tune it to your comfort. Your comfort is what matters to us!

Keep your audition sharp! Auditory bombardment is not just important for a developing child, but also for an aging adult. Use your hearing as much as possible. Interact with people around you. Listen to a lot of music or audiobooks.

In general, remember to maintain your hearing health and make sure to get help quickly! Early detection and intervention are as important to you as a developing child!

Mrs. Sharma finally got her hearing tested and is now wearing hearing aids. Mr. Sharma also had his hearing tested. He has no hearing loss, but he will continue to have his hearing checked periodically. They are both leading a happier and better life today! Their quarrels have reduced and Mr. Gupta now sleeps in peace.


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