Could prevention of dementia and even Alzheimer's disease be as simple as a visit to the audiologist?
Scientists have traced the roots of dementia back to even before midlife, a time when hearing loss and changes in speech patterns may signal the onset of cognitive decline. Furthermore, new research helps sketch a fuller picture both of who is at risk of cognitive decline and how early those processes probably begin.
"The research suggests that even when a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia could be years away, factors detectable when a person is in his/her 40s and 50s may signal or even contribute to the disease process," explains audiologist Dr. Ronna Fisher, founder of the Hearing Health Center in Chicago, Highland Park, Naperville, Oak Brook and Park Ridge.
"The role of hearing in predicting dementia has emerged as an early marker for cognitive decline -- but thankfully it is one for which we can provide an easy remedy," adds Fisher.
"It starts with coming in for a baseline hearing checkup, which everyone over 50 should have. With the increasing evidence of hearing loss by younger people we are revising that drastically downward--to age 40 or even earlier."
According to a recent study that looked at 783 fiftysomethings participating in the University of Wisconsin study, researchers found that those reporting a diagnosis of hearing loss performed worse on a series of tests of cognitive skills. In addition, when they were examined not more than four years later, those with hearing loss were more than three times likelier than their peers with normal hearing to be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment.
New research makes area audiologist's role and their need for training more important than ever.
"It's no longer about the device; it's about the brain," adds Fisher. "Our role now is to minimize the effects of auditory deprivation and help prevent dementia, balance problems, depression, hospitalizations and the other so-called 'inevitable' effects of aging."
Furthermore, researchers now believe the brain shrinks prematurely when hearing areas are no longer being stimulated.
The good news, though, is that studies suggest hearing aids, by maintaining brain stimulation, can largely prevent the memory loss, irritability, depression and other illnesses associated with aging.
"The bottom line," says Dr. Fisher, is having a hearing problem is now no different than having high blood pressure. They're both ticking time bombs. Our challenge now is to identify the 27 million people over 50 with hearing problems, treat them, and help prevent an otherwise inevitable rise in the illnesses of aging.