It may come as a surprise for many to learn that the symptoms of untreated hearing loss are very similar to those of Alzheimer’s Disease, and that the symptoms often assumed to be caused by worsening dementia are no more than the symptoms caused by impaired hearing. But the fact that untreated hearing loss worsens the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease may actually be a blessing in disguise.
Because the symptoms of impaired hearing are so similar to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease, treating hearing loss represents a new approach to mitigating the negative effects of Alzheimer's Disease and dementia.
While Alzheimer’s Disease is not curable, hearing loss to some degree is, so patients could potentially mitigate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease simply by improving their hearing. While it’s true that hearing loss cannot be fully restored, with the use of hearing aids, patients can greatly enhance their hearing so as to significantly reduce the confusion, memory impairment, and cognitive decline that has long been associated with hearing loss.
In fact, the links among hearing loss, dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, memory impairment, and cognitive decline are stronger than you may think, as researchers are just beginning to discover.
The Hidden Dangers of Hearing Loss
Studies show that seniors with hearing loss are significantly more likely to develop dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease, than those who retain their hearing, according to recent research conducted by Johns Hopkins University and the National Institute of Aging.
While the reason is ultimately unclear, researchers believe that the link between hearing loss and dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease, results from:
- A shared pathology (structural changes in the brain) between hearing loss and Alzheimer’s Disease.
- Years of straining to hear overwhelms and damages the brain.
- Brain tissue loss is accelerated in those with hearing loss compared to those who retain their hearing.
- Hearing loss leads to social isolation — a leading risk factor for dementia.
- Those with hearing loss are three times more likely to have a history of falling, potentially leading to traumatic head injuries.
In addition, hearing loss has been linked to depression, rapid cognitive decline, memory impairment, underlying medical conditions, and other issues that could all contribute to the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, in addition to making an existing condition worse.
Improve Your Hearing and Mitigate the Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
A 1996 study at the University of South Florida found that 49 of 52 elderly persons diagnosed with memory disorders also had severe, untreated hearing loss. The researchers concluded:
"Undiagnosed hearing loss interferes with learning, and makes people seem distracted, confused, disoriented and unresponsive, traits that might suggest Alzheimer's disease."
This represents one of many barriers that prevent individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease from having their hearing tested and treated: the misattribution of symptoms to the wrong cause. Here are some of the reasons why Alzheimer’s patients continue to suffer with untreated hearing loss:
- Caregivers assume the Alzheimer’s patient is displaying symptoms of dementia when the symptoms are actually resulting from hearing loss.
- Medical professionals misdiagnose hearing loss as worsening dementia because of a lack of training or awareness.
- Those with Alzheimer’s disease attribute their confusion to the disease and not to hearing loss.
- Those with Alzheimer’s, along with their caregivers, feel that decline is inevitable and improvement unattainable.
Overcoming these barriers is a matter of awareness and education. Patients and caregivers alike need to be aware that if hearing loss is present, quality of life can be greatly enhanced with hearing treatment, which often includes the use of hearing aids.
The bottom line: if you or someone you know is suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, we urge you to schedule a hearing test as soon as possible. You could end up recovering a quality of life you thought was gone forever.