A recent study out of the U.K. found that one third of dementia cases could be prevented by lifestyle changes. (We covered the study over on sister site TreeHugger in 9 lifestyle choices to help prevent dementia.) But the detail that caught my eye — or should I say made my ears perk up — was the effect of hearing loss. In fact, it was one of the most significant of the nine factors.

Hearing loss is a very big deal, one of the biggest. These are the factors that contribute to dementia. (Photo: The Lancet)

The study was published in the Lancet, a British medical journal, and goes into some detail about hearing. The Guardian digests it:

The team carried out a range of cognitive tests on the participants over a four-year period, aimed at probing memory and mental processing, revealing that those who had hearing loss at the start of the study were more than twice as likely to be found to have mild cognitive impairment four years later than those with no auditory problems, once a variety of other risk factors were taken into account.

The study itself notes that the reasons are not clear, “nor is it established whether correction, such as hearing aids, can prevent or delay the onset of dementia."

Older age and microvascular pathology increase the risk of both dementia and peripheral hearing loss, and might therefore confound the association. Hearing loss might either add to the cognitive load of a vulnerable brain leading to changes in the brain, or lead to social disengagement or depression, and accelerated atrophy, all of which could contribute to accelerated cognitive decline. (emphasis mine)

Now I can say from some experience, as a person who wears fancy hearables (a nicer name than hearing aids) that hearing has a huge impact on depression and social disengagement. I saw it in my late mom, my late father-in-law and I see it in myself. And as that table notes, in later life, depression and social isolation are big factors in dementia.

Hearing and social disengagement

view of lake There's a party on the other side of this lake, but I have to get across it in the rain. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Just this past weekend, my wife and I were invited to a dinner party across the lake where we live in the summer, and had to get there by boat in the pouring rain. My Starkey Halo hearables stopped working; I thought they were supposed to be pretty waterproof, but they must have some programming that shuts them down when wet.

They were fine the next day, but in the meantime, for the first time in about five years, I was in a social milieu without them. And I got an instant education in what life is like if you cannot hear well; I wasn't part of the party at all. Because of all the background noise, I couldn’t have a good conversation without standing uncomfortably close to people; I couldn’t really participate.

While I'm sometimes very happy that I have a volume control in my head and can turn the world down if it's too noisy and distracting, the fact is that social engagement is what keeps us young and connected. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Oh, and by the way, we're not talking about old people and seniors here. As usual, the Guardian and others illustrate their stories with someone who looks like they have 90-year-old hands, but in fact, they found the effect starts at age 55: " ...this age was the youngest mean age in which presence of hearing loss was shown to increase dementia risk." And that’s a full 50 percent of people with hearing loss have a higher risk.

hearables and phone New hearables erase the seam between human and computer. (Photo: Starkey)

Of course the hearing aid companies are jumping on this study; Starkey, which makes the Halo 2s that I wear, did a whole page on it. But there's another dementia-related feature that they don’t discuss. It’s well known that you can keep your brain young by keeping it engaged, by learning languages, playing chess, and more.

The new internet- and phone-connected hearables put a world in your pocket — I can listen to podcasts, news, audiobooks or whatever at any time without headphones, and find that I'm doing it a lot more than I ever did before. I’m not only hearing better; I'm challenging my brain.

I keep going on about how these hearables are more than just hearing aids, that they are fun, that there is no stigma. I’ve written that "they're not a stigma to me; they're a super power. As hearing aids, these devices have changed my life by letting me hear the immediate world around me; as hearables, they are wiring me directly into a much larger world."

But the real closer is when I learn they might also be really be a big help in saving my brain. That’s worth any price.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.