Staying for the weekend in Montreal with friends recently, we were surprised to learn that they’d both elected to get hearing aids. They’re a couple in their mid-seventies – he’s a mathematics professor at McGill, she’s a social worker working with elders – and they had never displayed any signs of hearing impairment in the past, so we asked them why they had taken such an important step.

Our friend the professor responded immediately: “To address and slow down the onset of dementia. It’s a preemptive choice.”

“What’s hearing loss got to do with dementia?” we asked.

It sounds like a stretch, we know. But our friend, a committed empiricist of the old school who believes, absolutely, in the primacy of evidence over everything else was prepared to expound (gently) on behalf of reason.

Serious research studies have shown, he explained, that older adults with hearing loss have a greater risk of developing dementia than older adults with normal hearing. Cognitive abilities (including memory and concentration) decline faster in older adults with hearing loss than in older adults with normal hearing. We decided to put his claims to the test.

Upon further research that we undertook on our own, it turns out that hearing loss occurs in approximately one in three people age 65 to 74 and nearly one in two people age 75 and older in the United States, making it one of the most common conditions affecting older adults.

According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA) hearing loss may impact cognition and dementia risk in older adults. A 2011 study found that older adults with hearing loss were more likely to develop dementia than older adults with normal hearing.

In fact, there was a relationship between level of uncorrected hearing loss and level of dementia risk: mild hearing loss was associated with a two-fold increase in risk; moderate hearing loss with a three-fold increase in risk, and severe hearing loss with a five-fold increase in risk.

Here at Home

In Canada, hearing loss is now regarded as a disability. According to Disability Credit Canada, “more than one million adults across Canada reported to have a hearing disability. Hearing loss is unequivocally the fastest growing chronic condition Canadians currently face, and some may qualify for Canada’s disability tax credit.”

It also turns out that older people who can’t hear well may become depressed, or they may withdraw from others because they feel frustrated or embarrassed about not understanding what is being said.

Signs of Hearing Loss

Some people have a hearing problem and don’t realize it. You should see your doctor if you:

  • Have trouble hearing over the telephone
  • Find it hard to follow conversations when two or more people are talking
  • Often ask people to repeat what they are saying
  • Need to turn up the TV volume so loud that others complain
  • Have a problem hearing because of background noise
  • Think that others seem to mumble

Does That Sound Like You?

Hearing loss is a common problem caused by noise, aging, disease, and heredity. People with hearing loss may find it hard to have conversations with friends and family. They may also have trouble understanding a doctor’s advice, responding to warnings, and hearing doorbells and alarms.

Sometimes, older people are mistakenly thought to be confused, unresponsive, or uncooperative because they don’t hear well. Hearing problems that are ignored or untreated can get worse. If you have a hearing problem, see your doctor. Hearing aids, special training, certain medicines, and surgery are some of the treatments that can help