Fifty million people are currently living with dementia worldwide, and that number is expected to triple by 2050. This drastic rise in the prevalence of the disease has been called a “global emergency,” ushering in new research on how we might mitigate dementia risk when possible.
It’s also prompting experts to spread the word on risk factors that may up your chances of a diagnosis. In fact, researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine say there’s one little-known risk factor linked with a five-fold increase in your likelihood of dementia. The good news? There’s also a chance that you can slash your risk by being proactive about the problem. Read on to learn which red flag means it’s time for a screening.
Dementia is an umbrella term for a range of diseases that cause changes in the brain. And while there are several causal factors that can heighten one’s risk of dementia, many people are unaware of these specific catalysts for cognitive decline.
According to a recent study led by Johns Hopkins Medicine expert Frank Lin, MD, PhD, hearing loss is one such risk factor. Lin says that after tracking 639 adults for nearly 12 years, his team discovered that mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk, moderate loss tripled the risk, and severe loss increases one’s chances of developing dementia by five times.
While researchers have long been aware of the positive correlation between hearing loss and dementia, they are only now beginning to understand the causal relationship between the two conditions.
One meta-analysis, which reviewed 17 studies on the relationship between hearing loss and dementia, proposed three possible reasons why hearing loss contributes to heightened dementia risk. “Hearing loss increases the cognitive load, diverting cognitive resources to auditory processing at the expense of other cognitive processes such as working memory,” wrote the meta-analysis’ authors, also hypothesizing that social isolation or an underlying medical issue that causes both hearing loss and dementia could be to blame. “It is also possible that these proposed mechanisms are not mutually exclusive, and decline in one pathway consequently affects the others,” the team explained.
According to experts at Johns Hopkins, 27 million Americans over the age of 50 are currently living with hearing loss, and just one in seven uses a hearing aid. “Hearing aid users wait, on average, 10 years before getting help for hearing loss,” the medical experts note.
Given the heightened risk of dementia among those with hearing loss, many seniors would likely benefit from being more proactive about declines in their hearing health. Lin says that he is currently planning a follow-up study to determine whether hearing aids may reduce the risk of dementia in patients with hearing loss. Though this has yet to be proven, Lin urges that there is “no downside to using hearing aids. They help most people who try them. And in those people, they can make all the difference in the world—allowing people to re-engage with friends and family and to be more involved again,” he says.
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Hearing loss can occur for a range of reasons, including genetic predisposition, exposure to loud noises, medication side effects, injury, or infection, say Johns Hopkins experts. It’s essential to tell your doctor as soon as you notice a problem so they can assess the underlying cause.
In addition to not being able to hear loud noises, you may also notice that you have trouble hearing conversation in noisy environments, as well as high-pitched noises, such as children’s voices. If you find that you’re hearing these types of sounds less often—or if you experience ringing in the ears, a symptom of tinnitus— it may be time to consult with an audiologist.