earSomeone very close to us has lived in a worsening state of dementia for more than 10 years. She is still able to live independently, a blessing in itself, but the question in everyone’s mind is, “how long until constant care will be needed?” Recently, we addressed a major issue. The result has halted, and at times, seemed to have reversed the state of her dementia. It’s been such a miracle that I want to share it with you.

Until recently, our loved one refused to wear her hearing aids. We could write a book from all the reasons given for not wearing them… “I don’t need them, I can hear just fine, they buzz when I use the phone, they’re uncomfortable.” The list goes on.

We pointed out many times, most often repeating our advice because she couldn’t hear it the first or second time, that hearing aids would not only help her hearing, but her memory problems as well.

It all changed during a visit to her neurologist for a routine checkup. During the examination, Dr. Ravindran found himself constantly repeating questions. He finally stopped, put his clipboard down, looked our loved one right in the eye and said, “Why aren’t you wearing your hearing aids today? I think you would want to hear what the doctor has to say?” Our loved one rattled off her laundry list of reasons, and Dr. Ravindran nodded each time. Then he said the words that made a difference, “Your hearing is absolutely critical to the function of your brain. If you are not going to wear your hearing aids, you might as well not take your medications for dementia. ”

The way he said it seemed to have an effect. Our loved one looked at her hands a long time then said, very quietly, “Okay, I will. I’ll start wearing them.” Dr. Ravindran pointed out he was not giving a medical opinion. He invited us to look at numerous studies that show the relationship between hearing loss and deterioration of the brain.

Just as Dr. Ravindran promised, I found numerous articles. The brain shrinks as it ages. It’s a natural part of the aging process. But, most studies show the effects are more pronounced than the simple adage “use it or lose it.” At least one study showed brain shrinkage is accelerated in older adults with hearing loss.

This study pointed out that the auditory cortex does not work in isolation. It is an integral part of brain function, especially those carried out by the middle and inferior temporal gyri, major contributors in memory and sensory integration, mild cognitive impairment, and Alzheimer’s disease. The study concluded that hearing loss must not be passed off as part of the aging process.

While surfing other subjects on hearing loss and dementia, I found another study discussing the negative impact hearing loss has on social engagement. A 2005 report by the Honolulu-Asia Study found that those whose level of social engagement declined from midlife to late life have the highest risk of dementia.

So, we began to address our loved one’s hearing loss. We made her wear her hearing aids every day from morning until bedtime. Soon this practice became a habit and a flow chart began to emerge:

  • Wearing hearing aids = increased use of the brain’s auditory cortex
  • Increased use of the brain = better cognition of people, events, and surroundings
  • Better cognitive skills = better social skills
  • Better social skills = better and deeper relationships
  • Deeper relationships = more memories

Those who know our loved one are in awe of the differences in her personality these past few months. Her face and her speech are livelier. She remembers much more than she used to. She has made new relationships with other residents at her retirement community and best of all, found a new zest for life. Turning back time began with addressing her hearing loss, and a few choice words from a neurologist.

Our Guest Blogger this week is Tom Knight, Center Director, Texas AHEC East – North Central Region.

Join us for a real-time discussion about the topics explored in this essay on Tuesday from 12:00 p.m. to 12:45 p.m. See Discussion and SL tabs above for details. Link to the virtual meeting room: http://tinyurl.com/cjfx9ag.