This month, let’s take a moment to acknowledge a condition that affects many people, either personally or through someone they love: Alzheimer’s disease. As we know, this condition is the most common form of dementia, a more general term for cognitive dysfunction that afflicts 50 million people worldwide. Alzheimer’s disease occurs most frequently later in life, but the “early onset” form of the condition can begin among people under the age of 65. The general symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include a loss of memory, difficulty in finding the right words or understanding what people are saying, difficulty in performing previously routine tasks, and personality and mood changes. As the most common form of disability among elderly adults, the condition has a vast effect on not only those who experience it first-hand but also those friends, family members, loved ones, and caretakers who are tasked with supporting those who have Alzheimer’s disease.
Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease
You might expect that we would know a lot about a condition that is so common and serious, but unfortunately, we do not have a good grasp on how Alzheimer’s disease comes about, how it could be prevented, or what can be done in terms of treatment and a potential cure. Although solutions to Alzheimer’s disease remain elusive, researchers have made great strides in understanding some of the related conditions, offering hope that one day we will understand Alzheimer’s disease more fully.
One of the related conditions to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia might come as a surprise: hearing loss. Although seemingly distinct from one another in how a person functions in the world, the two have a strong correlation. Those who have hearing loss are more likely to develop dementia, and those who already have both dementia and hearing loss are likely to experience a quicker decline in their cognitive functioning. Though one might think there is a link between hearing and memory in brain anatomy or chemistry, recent research suggests that the connection has more to do with an indirect link in the social environment.
A Link between Alzheimer’s Disease and Hearing Loss
A possible explanation for this connection between Alzheimer’s disease and hearing loss has to do with the process of communication. We know that spoken communication is an important way to preserve cognitive abilities, and difficulties using language, such as remembering words for things or putting together logical groups of ideas, tends to be an early warning sign of dementia.
With spoken communication such an important element of the process of thought, we have a clue into the relationship with hearing loss, as well. A person who engages in spoken communication picks up sounds and other bodily cues, combining them into meaningful ideas. However, a person with hearing loss does not receive full information from the other person in conversation. Instead, someone with hearing loss receives only random fragments of sound and seemingly unconnected syllables. Putting together these unrelated sounds into full thoughts can feel like working a jigsaw puzzle without all the pieces.
When the mind is taxed with grasping at meanings with only pieces of sound, the cognitive load can become unbearable. Many researchers hypothesize that the mind of a person with hearing loss scrambling to put together meaningful ideas can spread to other cognitive processes, including those associated with dementia.
A recent study by French public health scholar Hélène Amieva found that hearing aids have a profound effect on the relationship between hearing loss and dementia. In fact, those who wear hearing aids have no greater likelihood of developing dementia than a person without any hearing loss at all. Remarkable! This finding confirms that hearing ability and dementia are not linked in the brain directly, but rather there is a connection between the act of listening in social contexts. This discovery is a powerful step forward in the world of Alzheimer’s research, but much more can be done.
HearCare Rhode Island
Why not take the opportunity this September to honor World Alzheimer’s Month by investigating your own hearing ability? With a simple hearing test, our team at HearCare will be able to diagnose your hearing ability and recommend a course of treatment, often including hearing aids. You might be able to prevent the onset of dementia or to slow its course simply by procuring and wearing hearing aids to assist you in conversational environments.