Dr. Frank Lin is the leading researcher in the area of hearing loss and dementia. I had been reading his research for a while before I got to meet him in San Francisco last summer at the International Association for Gerontology and Geriatrics World Congress. I thought he would be older given his accomplishments.
Two-thirds of people over 70 have hearing loss. Dr. Lin noted how hearing aids in children are covered in 20 states because we recognize how important hearing is to the child’s development and interaction with society.
“Yet there’s a fundamental paradox there, the same hearing impairment, the same functional impact per se in terms of how speech is encoded and how the brain can decode it, critically important for a 12-year-old child, and all of a sudden for 72-year-olds, who cares?”
What are the consequences of adult-related hearing loss? Does hearing loss lead to changes in the brain structure? “Hearing loss may act as an independent hit on the brain,” according to Lin.
There are theoretical models suggesting that cognitive load, functional changes to the brain itself, and/or the accompanying social isolation play a part in hearing loss resulting in higher rates of dementia.
His teams analyzed data from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA), the National Health Nutritional Examinations Surveys (NHANES), and the Health ABC Study They found that hearing loss increased a person’s “aging” by 7 years, with a dose-dependent effect, the more hearing loss, the more cognition decline.
We also get auditory stimuli that help us navigate through space and Lin published research showing hearing loss is correlated with falls.
Does this mean that getting a hearing aid will decrease your risk of dementia later? The research hasn’t been done yet. Lin’s team began a five-year study in 2017 that hopes to show whether or not hearing loss treatment lowers the risk of developing dementia. In the meantime, new hearing aids are being developed that will be less expensive and available over-the-counter. Hearing aids are much easier and absolutely cheaper than living with dementia. If you can decrease your risk factors, you may be able to delay the onset of dementia symptoms and add healthy years to your life.