To be in control of your mental health is a powerful thing. Although much is still unknown about the causes of cognitive decline and dementia, researchers have grouped 40% of the risks into 12 factors that you can personally address.
Of the 12 potentially modifiable risk factors for dementia, the 2020 Lancet Report identified hearing loss as the largest risk factor you can do something about.
Other modifiable risk factors for dementia are less education, hypertension, smoking, obesity, depression, physical inactivity, diabetes, low social contact, excessive alcohol consumption, traumatic brain injury and air pollution.
What is dementia?
Dementia is a loss in cognitive functioning, (such as thinking, remembering, reasoning) – and behavioural abilities that interfere with your daily life. Dementia is a general term for declining cognitive abilities. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia.
Dementia can have a compounding affect on your health. Sufferers have more hospital admissions than other older people, even for illnesses that could otherwise be manageable at home.
Those with dementia have also disproportionately died during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitalizations during the pandemic could be more distressing, and although dementia sufferers need more care, it can be harder for them to access and organize the care they need due to their condition.
How is hearing loss linked to dementia?
Here are some theories to explain the link between hearing loss and dementia:
- There is a common underlying cause for both hearing loss and dementia.
In some studies, there were common genetic markers or underlying conditions in those who had dementia versus those who did not. Although the results are not definitive, improved care has made the 90 plus demographic the fastest growing population, providing an opportunity for researchers to study potential underlying causes with a wider test group.
- There is a lack of sound-related input, leading to brain shrinkage.
Hearing difficulties can impair brain function by keeping people socially isolated and inadequately stimulated by aural input. The harder it is for the brain to process sound, the more it works to understand what it hears, reducing its ability to perform other cognitive tasks.
- Hearing loss leads to cognitive impairment
People must engage more brain resources to compensate for hearing loss, so those resources become unavailable for other tasks.
Whichever the cause, research shows that the greater the hearing loss, the greater the dementia risk. In fact, research has shown an increased risk of dementia per 10 decibels of hearing loss.
With the body of research on the link between hearing loss and dementia growing, hearing health should be emphasized to ensure that those at risk are receiving the care they need.
Family caregivers are affected by dementia too.
Those with dementia require a caregiver to help them with basic tasks every day. Often, it is a loved one – may be a child or a spouse – that steps in to help. The combination of the caregiver's needs with the needs of the person with dementia can make addressing dementia a complex and personalized experience.
Simultaneously addressing the wellbeing of caregiver and those they care for can reduce feelings of depression and anxiety all around as well as increase their quality of life in a potentially cost-effective way.
Here’s what you can do to reduce your risk of dementia.
Likely due to improvements in education, nutrition, healthcare and lifestyle changes, age-specific incidences of dementia have fallen in many countries. Still, 50 million people live with dementia worldwide. This is projected to increase to 152 million by 2050.
Dementia prevention should begin from an early age to reduce your risk as you grow older. Many preventative measures have a greater impact depending on what stage you’re at in your life, but any health concerns should be addressed as soon as you are aware of them for your overall health and wellbeing.
Here are some early-life (younger than 45 years,) midlife (45-65 years,) and later-life (older than 65 years) factors that you can change to reduce your risk of dementia.
1. Engage in brain stimulating activities (early life)
The saying, “use it or lose it” is true in this case! Cognitively stimulating activities may help to keep your brain active, alert, and more resistant to dementia. New studies suggest that brain plasticity plateaus by late adolescence with fewer gains education-wise after 20 years of age. Still, it is unclear whether a higher education lowers dementia or the likelihood to seek out cognitively stimulating abilities is simply higher because the person has a higher education. Consider playing an instrument, learning a new language, or reading a book to keep your mind sharp.
2. Treat hypertension (midlife)
Since blood pressure tends to drop in later life when you are developing dementia, a low blood pressure is good to focus on in midlife to reduce your dementia risk. Midlife blood pressure control should aim for 130 mm Hg or lower to delay or prevent dementia.
Speak to your doctor about the best hypertension treatment options that are right for you.
3. Quit smoking (late life)
Smokers are at a higher risk of premature death than non-smokers, which leaves a smaller group of smokers in later life to develop conclusive information related to dementia. However, from the information we do have, stopping smoking, even in your later years, has shown to help reduce your dementia risk.
4. Address obesity (midlife)
If you are obese (BMI greater than 25), losing as little as 5 pounds could significantly improve your attention and memory. The study was based on 468 participants with a mean age of 50 years. Healthy eating and an active lifestyle are key to losing weight and lowering your BMI.
5. Treat depression (late life)
Depression is part of the early stages of dementia and can be further exasperated by the effects of dementia on your life. Although few studies have been done to distinguish between treated and untreated depression in those with dementia, treating dementia can help improve your mental wellbeing overall.
6. Physical exercise (late life)
Get out and be active! Doctors recommended physical exercise, not only to reduce your risk of dementia, but to improve your overall health. Sustained exercise in midlife and later reduces your diabetes risk and your cardiovascular risk. Both diseases are linked to an increased risk of dementia. No specific exercise is recommended for dementia prevention, so find an exercise that you enjoy to help you sustain an active lifestyle.
7. Manage your diabetes (late life)
Those with diabetes are at a higher risk for dementia than those without. The greater the duration and severity of the diabetes, the higher the risk. If you are diabetic, speak to your doctor about ways to manage the condition.
8. Maintain social connections (late life)
Health professionals have encouraged us to socially distance to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This recommendation can make it harder for us to stay in touch with our loved ones, but the need to stay socially connected is too important to neglect.
Research suggests that frequent social contact during late middle age resulted in a modest reduction in dementia risk. A study of 10, 308 people in the UK found that more frequent social contact at 60 years of age resulted in a lower dementia risk.
So, if you find yourself at home a lot lately, this is the perfect time to ramp up your phone and video calls. If you wear hearing aids, there are devices and accessories that you can wirelessly connect to your hearing aids for clearer audio streaming.
9. Curb your alcohol consumption (midlife)
Heavy drinking is linked to an increased risk of dementia, but this news isn’t all bad. One French study spanning 5 years showed that light to moderate alcohol consumption actually reduced the dementia risk of the participants compared to heavy drinking or abstaining for a long period of time.
More than 21 units weekly of alcohol is where the increased risk begins. To get a better understanding, 14 units of alcohol is equivalent to six pints of beer, or seven glasses of wine.
10. Wear protective head gear when necessary (midlife)
It is probably obvious that avoiding head injuries, which consequently impact your brain, may help reduce your risk of psychological conditions like dementia. Be sure to wear protective gear for activities where a fall can cause severe damage and follow instructions to ensure that you are participating safely in high-risk environments.
11. Address air pollution (late life)
The Lancet Report cites one study that is narrow in scope and may therefore underestimate the impact of air pollution on dementia.
The study was from Canada, where air pollution levels are among one of the lowest. Over 2 million people were studied with a baseline age of 67 years with findings that air pollution could increase your risk of dementia. This can be hard to avoid depending on where you live, but if you are able to reduce your exposure, it is recommended to do so.
12. Seek hearing treatment for hearing loss (midlife)
If you have hearing loss, wearing hearing aids may reduce your risk of dementia.
A 25-year prospective study of 3,777 people aged 65 years or older found more dementia cases among those with self-reported hearing problems except those who wore hearing aids.
In a separate survey of 2,040 people older than 50 years, memory deteriorated less after hearing aid use after adjusting for other risk factors.
Beyond reducing your dementia risk, treating hearing loss early with hearing aids may help people lead a higher quality of life, stay active, and prevent the risks of untreated hearing loss, which include isolation and depression.
Hearing aids are a gateway to communication and may help facilitate a healthy and active lifestyle through all stages of life, especially in mid to later stages, when the risk for dementia increases.
The only way to confirm hearing loss is through a professional hearing test. HearingLife provides free hearing tests and risk-free hearing aid trials nationwide to get you started on your journey to better hearing.