Hearing Loss May Increase Risk of Dementia

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Adults who suffer hearing loss frequently experience social isolation, which in turn may increase their risk of dementia. The findings are from a study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Hearing loss can be socially isolating

A subset of 639 individuals who were participating in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging were evaluated for both hearing loss and cognitive skills over an average of 11.9 years. All of the subjects were deemed to be free of dementia at entry (baseline) into the study.

At baseline, 455 individuals had normal hearing (mean age, 60), while 125 had mild hearing loss, 53 had moderate hearing loss, and six suffered with severe deafness. From baseline to follow-up, the researchers, led by Frank Lin, MD, PhD, of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and colleagues documented dementia from all causes in 58 individuals, including 37 who had Alzheimer’s disease.

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When hearing loss was factored in, the investigative team noted that the risk for dementia from all causes increased 27 percent for every 10-decibel loss of hearing. This relationship between hearing difficulties and dementia was observed only above the level at which verbal communication is impaired, which supports the view that social isolation caused by hearing loss may play a role in dementia.

Social isolation is a significant concern among older adults. In a report called “The Elderly and Social Isolation,” presented to the Committee on Aging, NYC Council in 2006, the authors noted that “the challenge is to distinguish, among those older persons who live alone…how many are vulnerable due to social isolation, poverty, disabilities, lack of access to primary care, linguistic isolation, or inadequate housing.”

Given the rapidly aging population and the projected increase in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, it is important to identify those factors that may contribute to these health issues. Lin and coauthors note that while additional investigations into a relationship between hearing loss and dementia are needed, if it is verified it could have “substantial implications for individuals and public health.”

SOURCES:
Gusmano MK, Rodwin VG. The Elderly and Social Isolation. February 2006
Lin FR et al. Archives of Neurology 2011; 68(2): 214-20

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