Opinion: Is there a link between hearing loss and dementia?

By Ted Venema, Hearing Instrument Practitioner instructor

When new research emerged several years ago linking hearing loss to dementia, it stirred up public concern. The hearing retail industry took advantage of this fear by running ads claiming that hearing loss could lead to dementia. Moreover, they claimed that you could prevent this with hearing aids.

It’s true that research has found a link between hearing loss and dementia. But “link” is a loaded word — it can indicate a connectedness, a loose relationship or a causal connection. As the saying goes, correlation does not equal causation. In this case, research has found a relationship between hearing loss and dementia, but not a cause and effect. So what is the nature of this vaguely defined relationship?

No research offers a conclusive answer. But many possible answers would fit what we already know about how ears and brains work, without alarming leaps of logic. It could be as simple as this: Maybe the person with hearing loss is trying so hard to listen that they cannot devote full cognition or attention to what is being said. The person may need to put in more effort just to understand, stopping the brain from storing what’s been heard into their memory.

Also, hearing is a communicative sense involving speech, language and connection with others. Let’s consider elderly people who have hearing loss. That loss may make it hard to communicate, leading to loneliness and frustration, both of which place stress on the brain.

Finally, many of the tests for cognitive decline are administered verbally. Someone with hearing loss might certainly have trouble answering questions. But it may have less to do with cognitive decline and more to do with their struggle to hear the questions in the first place.

So why are hearing aid retailers marketing a causal relationship between hearing loss and dementia when it hasn’t been proven by research? Simple: to sell more hearing aids. There’s a huge fear among the elderly around “losing it.” In fact, gerontology studies have shown that elderly people fear cognitive decline more than death. If they think they can stop or delay the onset of dementia by wearing hearing aids, many would be willing to fork out thousands of dollars.

If you or a loved one is losing their hearing, don’t be alarmed by oversimplified, misleading claims about the link between hearing loss and dementia. But do consider wearing hearing aids. While they will not prevent dementia, they can improve your social life, connections with other people and overall quality of life.

Ted Venema earned a BA in Philosophy at Calvin College (1977), an MA in Audiology at Western Washington University (1988), and a PhD in Audiology at the University of Oklahoma (1993). He has worked with the public as a clinical Audiologist, testing hearing and fitting hearing aids, at Canadian Hearing Services in Toronto and at NexGen Hearing in Victoria, B.C.

Dr. Venema has also been employed as a researcher and presenter for Unitron, a Canadian-based hearing aid manufacturer in Kitchener, Ontario. He was an Audiology professor at Auburn University in Alabama and also at Western University in London, Ontario. In 2006 he initiated, developed and implemented a new Hearing Instrument Specialist program at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ontario.

Since September 2017, he has been teaching in the Hearing Instrument Practitioner program at Douglas College in Coquitlam, B.C. Ted is the author of a textbook, Compression for Clinicians, which has now been rewritten and available as a 3rd edition.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the institutional views of Douglas College.

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