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A Connection between Hearing Loss, Depression, and Dementia
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Public health researchers and policy makers spend a lot of time thinking about risk factors. Although we can’t completely eradicate many public health concerns, there are lifestyle and treatment interventions that can reduce the rates of these health issues at the level of the entire population. Three health problems plague senior populations, specifically: hearing loss, depression, and dementia. A recent study tried to better understand the relationship between these three factors, ultimately hoping to unpack the relationship for public health interventions. What they discovered wasn’t as simple as hoped. Specifically, both hearing loss and depression had independent effects on the risk for dementia. The two in combination also have an interaction effect, making it difficult to parse the appropriate interventions. Let’s take a moment to consider how these three issues are interconnected in the body and mind.
Hearing Loss and Depression
These two risk factors for dementia have a dynamic of their own. Those who have untreated hearing loss have higher rates of depression than their counterparts who do not have hearing loss. Research has investigated these dynamics, specifically whether there is a direct or indirect relationship. Interestingly enough, the relationship turns out to be both direct and indirect. Those who have untreated hearing loss can develop depression as a direct result of their inability to hear and communicate as easily as they once did. The relationship can be indirect, as well. Those who have untreated hearing loss tend to experience social isolation. Rather than engage in the struggle to communicate, including the frustration, embarrassment, and anxiety that can bring, many would prefer to avoid social settings altogether. When faced with an event that would require conversations, they might opt to stay home. This tendency toward social isolation creates the indirect relationship with depression, as well.
Risk Factors for Dementia
Although there is no known cure or certain prevention for dementia, several lifestyle factors are correlated with lower rates at the level of the population. These healthy behaviors tend to be linked to other positive health outcomes. On the contrary, some health problems are interrelated. These negative health outcomes are called comorbidities, indicating that the presence of one problem increases the likelihood of others. Both hearing loss and depression are independent risk factors for dementia. Many studies have shown that the population of people with untreated hearing loss have higher rates of dementia than their counterparts who do not have hearing loss. Similarly, those with depression are also at a higher risk. With the additional information that hearing loss and depression tend to go together, this study shows that the three factors operate together as a “clinical phenotype” at risk of dementia.
Connecting the Dots
Perhaps the connection between these three health outcomes has to do with communication ability. Hearing loss makes it more difficult to have conversations, and those conversations can be frustrating and unsatisfying. Those who do not have enough opportunity to communicate in their lives are at a higher risk of depression. Furthermore, language problems are a hallmark of dementia, as well. Getting sufficient “mental exercise” in the form of language games and complex conversations is one of those healthy lifestyle habits that has been linked to lower rates of dementia. With these three factors gravitating around communication, we can see just how crucial conversations are for general well-being.
If you have someone in your life with any one of these health issues, it is important to intervene and help them seek help. In the case of depression and dementia, medical professionals are the first line of defense against these health problems. In the case of hearing loss, however, you can encourage that individual to begin with a hearing test. Our Audiologists can use the results of that exam to point your loved one to the right hearing aids to assist. With hearing aids used regularly, you can even explain to your loved one that they will be at a lower risk for depression and dementia. With such high stakes and such a complex nexus of health concerns, why not have an open-ended, encouraging, and supportive conversation with your loved one today?