Study: Symptoms of memory loss could actually be signs of a hearing problem

memory loss and hearing loss
May 4, 2019

Alzheimer’s disease is a common concern for elderly populations and their loved ones. A recent study shows that, for those who have concerns about developing Alzheimer’s disease, a hearing test would be a big benefit. Why? The symptoms of memory loss could actually be signs of a hearing problem or hearing loss.

The study, which was conducted at Baycrest, studied patients who were undergoing evaluation for memory and brain disorders. What surprised researchers is that the majority of these patients did, in fact, have hearing loss ranging from mild to severe (56%) but only a small minority of the patients actually used hearing aids (20%) to improve their condition. The evaluations for these patients found that a quarter, or 25%, of them did not, in fact, suffer from a memory issue.

Believe it or not, it’s very common for patients who are worried they may be developing a memory disorder such as Alzheimer’s disease to seek treatment, largely based on a partners’ concern that their loved one isn’t paying attention or remembering information, only to discover that the memory disorder they are concerned about is not the culprit…a hearing issue is.

When a person can’t hear what is being said to them, it may appear that they are not focusing. Further, if they can’t hear — they certainly can’t recall what was said to them. By taking steps to in some way treat a hearing issue, the memory issues stop being a concern.

Ruling out a hearing condition is good practice for aging adults: a staggering 50 percent of adults over age 65 and 90 percent of adults older than 80 suffer from some form of hearing loss. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t in a hurry to get help for hearing issues: it takes, on average, a decade before people with hearing loss get the treatment they need. Even more alarming? Fewer than 25% of the people who need hearing aides end up buying them.

Another area of concern, pointed out Dr. Vandermoss who is a researcher on the Baycrest team, is that hearing loss can actually impact some of the testing done in neuropsychology clinics. Memory tests that are administered verbally, for example, could lead to poor results if the patient has an undiagnosed hearing loss issue.

Dr. Vandermoss says that while patients may drag their feet when it comes to getting treatment for hearing loss, it is crucial to take action. She states that hearing health is, afterall, brain health and that quality treatment is available.

The Baycrest study looked at results collected from 20 patients who were undergoing neuropsychological testing at the facility. After the assessments were complete, the patients then received a hearing test. Their neuropsychologists had access to their test results — and some of their results were in fact changed as a result of the information about their hearing was included. Some patients were referred to an audiology clinic for further testing or to explore how a hearing aid could help them regain some of the missing information that brought them to Baycrest in the first place.

A practice advisor and study author with Baycrest’s audiology department, Maryiln Reed, pointed out that treating hearing loss could help field off bigger problems down the road. Loss of hearing has been shown to be a risk factor for the development of dementia later on — when one can take action and get help for hearing loss, they could potentially reduce the risk of developing a cognition disorder such as dementia.

Beyond just dementia, hearing loss can lead to social isolation to avoid the difficulties of not being able to hear a conversation or activity. A lack of social activities in an aging person’s life can impact them in three key ways: cognitively, physically, and in terms of their mental health.

For the Neuropsychology and Cognitive Health Department at Baycrest, the study has introduced more comprehensive screenings. Neuropsych assessments- at Baycrest now include hearing screenings — and patients also receive information about hearing issues. The researchers hope that by providing education and educational materials, and through fostering conversations about hearing loss, diagnosis of issues can happen earlier and hopefully more positive outcomes will result.