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Study explores hearing loss, dementia link

Hernando Today Correspondent

Published:   |   Updated: May 18, 2014 at 11:19 AM

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Ernie is in his 80s, has short term memory loss and dementia. But he stays active, participates in scheduled activities at his assisted living facility and often is described by family and friends as jovial and enthusiastic.

That wasn’t always the case, said Joanie Davis, an audiologist at Davis Family Hearing. Davis fitted Ernie with state-of-the-art hearing aids when he came to see her about five years ago. She got to know him during annual visits and became worried when she noticed, at one visit, that Ernie wasn’t quite himself.

Quiet, withdrawn and disengaged, Davis asked his family what was wrong. They thought his dementia was getting worse. But Davis discovered his hearing aids weren’t functioning properly. After making a simple adjustment, Ernie snapped back to his old self immediately, while still in the examination chair.

“It was like I turned his switch on,” Davis said with a chuckle. But she was only half joking. In reality, that is exactly what she had done.

Davis is an audiologist with her own practice in Spring Hill and New Port Richey. Her passion is fueled by cases like Ernie’s because she watched as his life became redefined once he had the right hearing aids.

Davis said she often sees patients who are mischaracterized as having progressive dementia when hearing loss actually might be the leading cause of their apparent decline. Symptoms of hearing loss easily can be mistaken for dementia, she said, because they mimic what many think are signs their loved one is losing their grasp on reality.

An article published in Johns Hopkins Medicine in January stated that while the aging brain shrinks, the “shrinkage seems to be fast-tracked in older adults with hearing loss,” according to results of a study by researchers from Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Aging.

The 2011 study explored the relationship between hearing loss and dementia and sheds light on common symptoms of hearing loss and early dementia.

Studies suggest that the more severe the hearing loss, the greater the likelihood of developing dementia.

More reason, said Davis, to discover hearing loss early so it can be treated. Yet a stigma still follows hearing loss and its perceived association with “getting old.”

Davis has been fighting to break the stereotype for years and is beginning to see a shift. More of her patients fall within what is considered young, proving hearing loss isn’t necessarily associated with aging. “My patients are between 40 and 60 years old,” she said.

Some people fear a trip to her office is surrendering to the idea that they are old. Yet many patients who take advantage of the free hearing test and trial period — should aids be recommended — walk out with a new reality.

“They get their life back,” Davis said.

When Ernie’s failing hearing aids were replaced with better technology, he became the man his wife, Fran, said she had missed for years.

Loss of hearing disconnects people, Davis said. Those who used to love social settings will begin to withdraw, isolate and become depressed. And family and friends might misunderstand the reason.

Davis stresses the importance of treating hearing loss early because brain cells that receive no stimulation eventually will die. And they don’t grow back.

And now studies show early treatment can help reduce the risk of developing dementia.

“That is why early intervention is absolutely necessary to improving the quality of life of you or a loved one. Remember, the more connected to the environment we are, the more likely we are to interact with it,” Davis said.

Davis Family Hearing is at 10045 Cortez Blvd. in Brooksville and at 11331 Little Road in New Port Richey. The offices can be reached at (352) 666-8910 or through the website, davisfamilyhearing .com.

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