Wearing This May Reduce Your Dementia Risk, According to New Research
Intriguing findings from a Johns Hopkins study reveal how a common device could delay cognitive decline in older adults.
At a summertime concert, in the office or classroom, from the laughter of grandchildren or a Jimmy Buffett song, hearing helps to connect you with the world around you. With much of the Baby Boomer generation now having reached the distinguished senior threshold, recent research has also shown that hearing provides essential stimulation that can fight off depression—and increasing evidence is suggesting that’s also true for dementia.
A July 2023 study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet found that keeping a pulse on your hearing health may be one powerful way to keep dementia at bay.
The results of the ACHIEVE study
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a person is considered to have hearing loss if their ability to hear falls below the standard of normal hearing thresholds: 20 decibels or better in both ears. This impairment can vary in severity, from mild to profound, and might affect one or both ears.
The reasons for hearing loss include birth factors, early childhood issues, persistent ear infections or other illnesses, loud noise exposure, aging, and certain harmful drugs, among others. Per data from the WHO, this is a concern shared worldwide: a staggering 1.5 billion people, or about one-fifth of the global population, live with some form of hearing loss.
Under the guidance of Frank Lin, MD, PhD, Director of the Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health at Johns Hopkins, the Aging and Cognitive Health Evaluation (ACHIEVE) study set out to explore the link between hearing and cognitive health.
Dr. Lin and his team of researchers enrolled 977 participants between the ages of 70 and 84, all exhibiting untreated hearing loss but having no significant cognitive impairments. Participants were divided into two categories: One group that received a hearing aid, a toolkit for self-management, and ongoing audiologist counseling; while the other group was given health education sessions on chronic disease prevention.
A fascinating discovery emerged: After undergoing the hearing intervention, participants in this group exhibited an average 48% decrease in the rate of cognitive decline over three years.
In a press release, Dr. Lin reflected on the study: “The hearing intervention had a significant effect on reducing cognitive change within three years in the population of older adults in the study who are at increased risk for cognitive decline.” He added that the hearing intervention also notably improved “communication abilities, social functioning, and loneliness.”
Maria C. Carrillo, PhD, Alzheimer’s Association chief science officer, says she finds the results heartening and emphasizes the need for global dementia prevention strategies: “The positive results with the hearing intervention … are encouraging and warrant further investigation.”
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Possible reasons hearing loss impacts dementia risk
Dr. Lin discusses three predominant theories in an interview with the university:
- First, hearing loss can lead to reduced social interactions, resulting in feelings of isolation or withdrawal. Cognitive stimulation via regular interactions is crucial for brain health.
- Second, the cognitive load hypothesis suggests that the brain compensates for hearing loss by redirecting resources. Another way to understand this might be that the energy it takes just trying to figure out what’s being said around you can compromise other cognitive functions and make a person more susceptible to dementia.
- Third, chronic reduced auditory stimulation might cause faster atrophy in specific brain regions. Consequently, addressing hearing loss, potentially with hearing aids, could reduce these detrimental pathways and decrease cognitive decline risks.
The bottom line
Should everyone rush to get a hearing aid? While the study showcases the potential of hearing interventions in stalling cognitive decline, particularly in high-risk groups, Dr. Lin offers his perspective, “Until we know more, we recommend for general health and well-being that older adults have their hearing checked regularly and any hearing issues properly addressed.” Roger that.
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