What’s that You Say? The Correlation between Deafness and Dementia

My mother’s deafness began when I was 12-years-old. She would have been 41.

At first is wasn’t too problematic. She would say, “can you repeat that?” or “can you speak louder.” Most of her difficulty was with people who mumbled or with words that weren’t correctly enunciated.

But as the years went by, her hearing deteriorated. She learned to read lips. As long as you looked directly at her, she seemed to get the message. This was a good thing, because she worked part-time as a clerk at Howard’s Shoe Store in our hometown of Alliance, Nebraska.

During my high school years, I couldn’t help but notice my mom quit going to church with my dad and she no longer enjoyed movies or playing bridge with the neighbors. She was gradually becoming socially isolated and I imagine lonely.

Often she was paranoid that people were talking about her.

In particular, she thought the people who worked with my dad, who was the editor of the local newspaper, were making fun of her when they were simply laughing at someone’s joke. This made her bitter and she refused to go to Christmas parties or other events held for the newspaper employees.

Mom Becomes Forgetful

By the time I was in college, Mom was wearing a hearing aid and looking into a cochlear implant which she got for one of her ears but not the other. She continued to work at the shoe store, but gradually she became forgetful and the store gave her fewer and fewer hours.

My mom was never diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, but she clearly had this disease. When my dad was sick and in the hospital in 1999, she wandered off from the house and they found her across town, lying on the sidewalk with a broken hip.

After hospitalization, my brother and I put Mom into a nursing home. I lived in San Francisco so I couldn’t come out to Nebraska that much, but the first time I went to see her she didn’t know who I was.

“Who are you?” she asked. I told her I was her son, David Bunnell.

“If you’re David Bunnell,” she replied, “take me home right now.”

After My Father Died

When my dad died on December 28, we arranged to transport mom to the funeral parlor to view his body. Sitting in a wheelchair she stared at Dad for a few moments, and then with a audible sigh she simply said “Oh” and we knew she recognized him and knew what had happened.

I think Mom realized with Dad’s death she would never go home again. For years, he had been her caregiver, making all her meals, helping her get into and out of the bathtub, making sure she didn’t leave the house alone. There was no else in the family to fill the void.

A few months later, I got a call from the nursing home. “Your mom passed away,” they said. She was doing well, they said, and then she just didn’t wake up.

Here it is 13 years later, and today I read in The New York Times Science section that research by an otolaryngologist and epidemiologist at John Hopkins School of Medicine, Dr. Frank Lin, and colleagues, found a strong association between deafness and dementia.

The Worse the Hearing Loss, the Greater the Risk

“Compared to individuals with normal hearing, those individuals with a mild, moderate, and severe hearing loss, respectively, had a 2-, 3- and 5-fold increase risk of developing dementia,” Dr. Lin wrote. The worse the hearing loss, the greater the risk.

From the article, I learned the social isolation that comes with hearing loss and which was very much a factor in my mom’s case, is a known risk factor for dementia.

In a way I’m relieved to know about the correlation between hearing loss and dementia because my hearing is fine. Since I didn’t inherit my mom’s hearing problems, I probably won’t inherit her dementia. My brother on the other hand, has the same hearing problems my mom had. He has plenty to worry about.

The best advice for my brother and for other people with hearing loss is to invest in a really good hearing aid, not one you buy off the internet, and get it checked frequently.

Click here to read The New York Times article, “Straining to Hear and Fend Off Dementia.”

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