A highly regarded report published by The Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care called dementia “the greatest global challenge for health and social care in the 21st century.”
Ask friends and loved ones of the estimated 50 million people worldwide who have dementia, and they'll no doubt back it up — with stories about the worry, stress, sadness and devastation that dementia leaves in its wake.
But before we get to their recommendations for ways to prevent dementia, let’s quickly explain why a hearing loss blog would write about it in the first place.
Hearing loss is a known risk factor for dementia
Studies have long linked hearing loss to dementia. One Johns Hopkins study concluded that people with hearing loss are up to five times more at risk for developing dementia than peers with normal hearing.
Researchers confess the science is not definitive on exactly why hearing loss increases dementia risk, but they agree on three probable reasons, all of which are contributing factors to dementia:
- Hearing loss leads to social isolation and loneliness — Social isolation has been associated with a 50 percent increased risk of dementia.
- Hearing loss shifts the cognitive load of the brain — The brain spends too much energy trying to process what it’s hearing, leaving it less energy to spend on thinking and memory.
- Hearing loss accelerates brain atrophy — While all brains shrink as we age, in studies, people with impaired hearing had “accelerated rates of brain atrophy.”
OK, let’s get back to the Commission’s recommendations.
12 modifiable risk factors account for 40 percent of dementia cases
In its initial report, the Commission wrote that “dementia is by no means an inevitable consequence” of aging. Rather, it determined that certain “potentially reversible risk factors” might increase a person’s risk of developing dementia.
More specifically, it determined there were 12 of these "risk factors" and identified the 12 as hearing loss, childhood education, smoking, depression, physical inactivity, social isolation, traumatic brain injury, hypertension, air pollution, alcohol consumption, obesity and diabetes.
Then the Commission noted that, “together those 12 modifiable risk factors account for around 40 percent of worldwide dementias” and calculated that that 40 percent of dementia cases “could theoretically be prevented or delayed” if those risk factors could be managed, modified or reversed.
Hearing loss is the single largest modifiable risk factor for dementia
In its report, the Lancet Commission ranked each of the 12 risk factors by the percentage reduction in new dementia cases if it was eliminated. The highest ranked risk factor was hearing loss — meaning it had the biggest impact on dementia cases of the 12.
While some of the risk factors are certainly more challenging to manage or modify than others, the good news is that hearing loss is both manageable and modifiable through treatment.
The Commission recommends modifying hearing loss in midlife
Dementia doesn’t typically show symptoms until around age 65 and over. But the report's authors note that dementia likely begins between ages 40-65. Managing these risk factors at various stages of life could contribute to prevention or delay of dementia.
The recommendation for hearing loss is to manage it in midlife (between age 40-65), before it has a chance to negatively impact cognitive skills. This is consistent with what others have found and said. Of course treating it anytime you’re ready is smart.
Starkey’s newest hearing aids were specifically designed to help people manage their hearing loss and be more physically and socially active — two other risk factors on the Commission’s list.
It’s just one more very good reason to treat hearing loss
Having dementia is a real concern for older adults and for the people who love them. The good news is that as research sheds more light on the causes and contributing factors of dementia, the more we learn of things we can do to potentially prevent or delay its onset.
Hearing loss is absolutely something we can manage with the help of an experienced hearing care professional. If you have hearing loss, this research gives you another great reason to treat it as soon as you can.
If you have hearing loss and are ready to do something about it, we can help. Simply type your zip code in here and you’ll find a list of local hearing care professionals who can test your hearing and consult with you about treatment options.
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