Doctors share warnings of turning up the volume

April 18, 2016

Turning down the volume might help more than just your hearing.

Dr. Tonia Fleming, a doctor of audiology and director of Grace Hearing Center for Grace Health System, said studies have shown hearing loss could progress the onset of dementia.

It’s particularly alarming since hearing loss is becoming more common in younger people.

“We used to think that we lost our hearing in our 30s,” Fleming said. “Now we know we start to lose it in our teens because of our lifestyles and things that we do on a daily basis.”

Fleming said she’s seen studies that show the prevalence of dementia is also growing.

“So as the incidents of hearing loss are growing, so are the incidents of dementia,” she said. “It kind of makes it more important that you go get help for your hearing early.”

But Dr. John Culberson, geriatrician with the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center, said he’s skeptical about the exact links between the two.

A study published by John Hopkins Medicine in 2014 examined the links between hearing loss and dementia. It was conducted with a group of 126 participants in Baltimore who were observed over a 10-year period.

“It’s still being studied,” Fleming said.

It doesn’t mean hearing loss will trigger dementia, Fleming said. Just because you go deaf doesn’t mean you’ll develop dementia. But there seems to be an association, she said.

“The way our brains are wired, speech and hearing are all related in the same area as memory and all the cognitive functions,” she said. “When one or more modalities are affected, it seems to make the incident of dementia greater.”

Culberson said the lines are too blurry to draw a definitive conclusion about the effects of hearing loss on the development of dementia.

Hearing loss and dementia are different in that hearing loss can be triggered through sensory factors, he said. Triggers are not as easy to distinguish for dementia.

“Studying dementia and the causes of dementia and the actual pathology of the brain is a challenge because you really can’t look at any tissue until the person is already passed,” Culberson said.

That’s why he’s skeptical about the connection, he said.

When people experience hearing loss, they often feel embarrassed and choose to close themselves off from interactions with others, he said. One key to preventing dementia is brain stimulation, he said.

“Your brain is a lot more than just memory,” he said. “It’s really memory and emotions. You can trigger the emotions from another source such as music. That’s going to help you to involve larger portions of your brain in your daily life. Obviously, if you have hearing loss, you’re not going to be able to do that as well.”

Fleming said hearing aids could be a factor in helping slow the progression of dementia, but not enough evidence is available to know for sure.

“Hearing aids are very important so you can get stimulation to the auditory cortex of your brain,” she said.

When they’re appropriately fitted to the individual and worn, Fleming said, they help provide brain stimulation.

But it’s not always easy to detect and/or speak up about hearing loss, she said.

It’s often a spouse or loved one who notices the hearing loss first, Fleming said, and men are generally more likely to develop it.

“More incidents of hearing loss are starting earlier,” she said. “It’s definitely permanent and it’s not something you can go take a pill for.”

The earlier it’s detected, the easier it is to handle, she said.