Ask the Pharmacist – Hearing loss and Dementia

Q. I heard that hearing loss may increase one’s risk for dementia. Is that true?

A. Before we delve into this answer, let’s first describe what dementia is and its signs and symptoms. Rather than thinking of dementia as a specific disease, think of it as a term that represents the symptoms that affect memory, thinking and social abilities. In fact, these symptoms can have a major impact on a person’s daily life. There are various reasons why people suffer from dementia, some of which are Alzheimer’s Disease, vascular dementia, Lewy-Body disease, Huntington’s Disease and it is estimated that 8% of dementia cases are due to hearing loss.

Key symptoms of dementia are;

· Memory loss – Bear in mind that having memory loss does not mean you have dementia.     Memory loss can be a result of other ailments that are not associated with dementia.
· Trouble finding the right words
· Problems communicating with others
· Lack of reasoning and problem-solving skills
· Inability to plan/organize
· Reduced visual and spatial abilities
· Lack of coordination
· Confusion and disorientation
· Personality changes
· Depression and/or anxiety
· Agitation
· Inappropriate behaviour
· Paranoia
· Hallucinations

As you can see, the symptoms are quite varied and are also the same symptoms that can be seen with many other ailments. Ultimately, what causes dementia is a loss or damaged nerve cells that are responsible for sending connections to and from the brain. The symptoms that arise from this mishap are dependent on the areas of the brain that are affected.

Most types of dementia are not reversible but there are cases where signs of dementia can be reversed. Having an infection riddling in your body as in the case of an undiagnosed urinary tract infection can cause a temporary bout of dementia symptoms. Simply treating the infection can reverse the dementia. This is something to consider if your loved one has suddenly shown signs of dementia out of the blue.

Other cases of reversible dementia could be due to uncontrolled blood sugar, thyroid levels, lack of various B vitamins, dehydration or perhaps a side effect of a medication. Ask your health care provider for some bloodwork to rule out some of these causes.

There are some risk factors that are beyond our control when it comes to dementia such as our age and our genetics. Other risk factors that may increase your risk of dementia that can be prevented or at the very least be well-controlled are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, head trauma and sleep apnea. On a positive note, however, there are lifestyle changes that can be made that will reduce the risk AND reduce the cognitive decline associated with dementia. These lifestyle changes include;

· Adopting a diet rich in fish, fruit, vegetables, oils, whole grains, nuts and seeds such as the Mediterranean diet
· Exercise
· Cognitive training
· Socialization
· Avoidance of alcohol
· Avoidance of nicotine

Have you noticed a trend with these lifestyle choices? Most people, if not all, will benefit from adopting these habits which will ultimately reduce or prevent so many ailments.

Getting back to your question, it remains unclear how the hearing loss is related to developing dementia and there are ongoing studies trying to get to the bottom of this. The initial thoughts are that hearing loss may change the brain structure and thus have a direct impact on our brain function. It is also possible that the effort required from our brain to decipher what we think we heard (or did not hear) and piece together the words/phrases together drains the brains ability to function properly.

A further possibility is that hearing loss may cause the brain to shrink more rapidly. Lastly, there is often a lack of socialization that occurs with many people who suffer hearing loss. The inability to participate in conversations leads them to withdraw from society and it is believed that lack of socialization further reduces our brain function. So the question we now ask is whether or not the use of hearing aids will help reduce our risk of dementia?

A study was performed and published in The Lancet on this very topic. This study incorporated healthy volunteers and people at a higher risk of dementia due to cardiovascular risk factors. The synopsis of this study shows that though hearing interventions did not appear to help the healthy participants, it did slow cognitive decline in the cardiovascular group by half. Though a hearing intervention may not help someone with low risk of dementia in the short term, since older age is a risk factor for dementia, it may help you in the long run. Plus, there is also no downside, other than cost, to get your hearing checked and act accordingly.

We hear (pun intended) many of our elderly patients mention that they have no interest in wearing a hearing aid because it diminishes them and is a visible reminder to them and others that they are aging, much like we hear about peoples dislike of a walking aid. Hopefully they will reconsider after learning that they can potentially reduce their cognitive decline by half.

For more information on this or any other topic, contact the pharmacists at Gordon Pharmasave, Your Health and Wellness Destination.