Have you ever avoided a social gathering because you were afraid of feeling lost in the conversation? Have you felt exhausted after straining to hear in a difficult listening situation?

If so, you might be experiencing the social isolation common to hearing loss and recently identified as a possible factor in the development of dementia.

“Researchers have looked at what affects hearing loss, but few have looked at how hearing loss affects cognitive brain function,” said study leader Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the Division of Otology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Lin and his team studied more than 600 volunteers whose hearing and cognitive abilities were tested as part of a long-term multidimensional study called the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging (BLSA), established in 1958. About a quarter of the volunteers had hearing loss at the start of the study, but none of them had dementia.

Participants were closely followed with repeat exams every year or two for nearly 20 years. Researchers found that those who had hearing loss at the beginning of the study were significantly more likely to develop dementia by the end.

Of those participants who started with hearing loss, 36 percent developed dementia over the course of the study.

“Compared to individuals with normal hearing, those individuals with a mild, moderate, and severe hearing loss, respectively, had a two-, three- and five-fold increased risk of developing dementia over the course of the study,” reported Dr. Lin.

In a separate study, Johns Hopkins reported that the hearing loss rate in older adults has climbed to more than 60 percent in a national survey.

“A lot of people ignore hearing loss because it’s such a slow and insidious process as we age,” Lin said. “Even if people feel as if they are not affected, we’re showing that it may well be a more serious problem.”

Further research is needed to determine the exact reasons why dementia and hearing loss might be connected. However, one possibility proposed in the study is that dementia might result in part from the social isolation inherent in hearing loss.

Regular hearing checks can help identify loss early. Hearing aids might help to delay or even prevent cognitive difficulties. State-of-the-art technology allows a more natural listening experience so individuals who are hard of hearing can focus on conversations in front of them.

Hearing aids can help to prevent hearing loss from robbing you of your connection to those you love.

Take steps to make sure your hearing is in good health. Make an appointment with a qualified hearing professional.

Brad Wuest is a hearing instrument specialist with AccuQuest. AccuQuest.com