Alice left her keys in the fridge on purpose. She knows how it looks, but it’s a trick she learned when she was in her twenties. When she doesn’t want to forget her lunch, she puts her keys next to her lunchbox in the refrigerator. That way she can’t go anywhere until she also grabs her lunch! But Alice is also aware that leaving your keys in the fridge is a commonly cited red flag for dementia. And because she’s worried about the reason she leaves her keys in the fridge (the fact that she never remembers her lunch in the first place), she’s constantly looking for other warning signs of Alzheimers or dementia.
Those early warning signs and red flags are important because dementia and Alzheimer’s are notoriously difficult to predict. That’s why scientists, doctors, and researchers alike are working together to find new tests that can accurately predict the odds of you getting dementia. And it turns out that one of the most reliable markers for developing dementia just might be hearing loss.
Detecting dementia early
Dementia is a cognitive condition in that can manifest early as memory problems or mood swings, but dementia can eventually progress to significant disorientation, mood swings, changes in personality, memory loss and so on.
There’s some evidence to suggest that dementia is at least partially caused by certain lifestyle choices and events. So the idea is that detecting risk early could lead to preventative treatment and care.
Early detection, though, has been a problem. There’s been some mild success with certain blood tests that can detect molecular markers. And there have also been several promising studies using PET scans. An ongoing PET scan study, called Imaging Dementia–Evidence for Amyloid Scanning (or IDEAS) has had some success in this regard.
A surprisingly accurate early warning sign of dementia
Other studies have found a strong link between dementia and hearing loss–specifically, with untreated hearing loss. To put some numbers on it: people with hearing loss have a three times higher risk for a condition called “mild cognitive impairment (MCI),” which is a type of cognitive decline. Anyone with MCI, then, had a 10% chance of developing dementia.
No one’s definitively proven what causes that link, but the current thinking is most focused on several different factors:
- Social isolation: Humans are social beings. When you find it difficult to communicate (thanks to your hearing loss), you might start to isolate yourself. You don’t go shopping or out to eat or to your weekly book club. Instead, you stay inside. And this can cause certain negative changes to the brain.
- Changing brain architecture: There’s also some evidence to suggest that when you lose the ability to hear, your brain will reallocate resources. Areas of your brain that had been devoted to interpreting sound begin helping you with your vision–that kind of a thing.
- Atrophy: While your brain reallocates some resources, other parts of the brain fall into disuse. There’s a very real “use it or lose it” urgency when it comes to cognitive functions, so this so-called atrophy can cause real problems.
Reducing your risk of dementia
So if you want to avoid tripling your risk of cognitive decline (which then leads to a 10% increase in risk of dementia), the trick may be treating your hearing loss as early as possible. A treatment plan (which may include hearing aids) can help keep your brain–and your social life–active and healthy. And that can stave off certain types of cognitive decline.
But dementia is caused by a wide range of metrics. We know that hearing loss can be related in some instances, but that’s not true for every single individual.
There are a number of factors that go into determining your overall risk of dementia. Treating hearing loss isn’t going to act as some kind of vaccine. But it can lower your risk.
But one thing is for sure: Alice will be keeping a close eye on her hearing. That way she can keep leaving her keys in the fridge–at least when she needs to bring her lunch to work.