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The Link Between Hearing Loss and Dementia

May 7, 2011

It starts out as an annoyance, becomes a bit of an embarrassment and, eventually, can turn you into a bit of a hermit.

Up until now, that frustration was one of the worst things about degenerative hearing loss.

But all that changed with a just-published study that puts hearing loss in a new perspective — that of major warning sign and not just an annoyance.

Damage runs deep

Between 1990 and 1994, Johns Hopkins researchers, in the US, gave hearing tests to nearly 640 dementia-free subjects, aged 36 to 90. Then they followed the development of dementia until 2008.

Results showed a clear link between hearing loss and dementia risk, including Alzheimer’s disease. And the results were linear, so the more severe the hearing loss, the greater the risk of developing dementia.

There’s a variant on the chicken-egg question here. The study doesn’t conclude that hearing loss actually contributes to dementia. But the researchers suggest this might be so in cases where hearing difficulty causes social isolation or mental exhaustion — two conditions that may contribute to dementia, especially when they’re combined.

The one factor that made me think that isn’t the case was that hearing aid use was NOT linked to reduced risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s.

So it’s more likely that there’s a biological link than a social one, since hearing aids amplify sound, but they can’t fix hearing — especially hearing caused by nerve cell damage.

In a recent news report, neurologist Dr. Richard B. Lipton, explained that damaged nerve cells mean that some of the inner ear structure is disabled. This disrupts patterns of vibrations that the inner mechanisms of the ear require to produce sound.

Dr. Lipton: “If there’s damage to the neurons that mediate hearing, that may be a kind of marker for similar damage to nerve cells involved in memory and higher cognition.”

Bottom line: Hearing loss should be considered a health threat — and a potentially major one.

As I’ve told you before, folate and vitamin B-12 deficiencies may aggravate hearing loss. Some cases are linked to zinc deficiency. Research has shown that ginkgo biloba supplements may relieve some symptoms.

Extended use of powerful drugs such as chemotherapy, antibiotics and intravenous diuretics can also lead to hearing loss.

If diminished hearing has become a nuisance in your life, it’s time to consider it a red flag instead of an annoyance. Talk to your doctor about what you can do now to address the looming risk of dementia before it’s too late.