Want to reduce your risk of dementia? Get your hearing checked today

Two stylishly drawn outer ears in black with a red sound wave entering one ear and a red hearing aid in the second ear; background is blue

Are you having a little trouble hearing conversations? If so, you’re not alone. An estimated 23% of Americans ages 12 and older have hearing loss. Although most of those people have mild hearing loss, for people ages 80 years and older, it’s more common for hearing loss to be moderate to severe than mild.

But not only is moderate to severe hearing loss disruptive to one’s life, it also makes you more likely to develop dementia. A new study helps explain why — and what you can do about it.

What did the new study look at and find?

A study published in JAMA focused on a sample of adults in the United States from the National Health and Aging Trends Study, which follows Medicare beneficiaries. The participants sampled were 70 or older.

The researchers found that about 33% of participants had normal hearing, 37% had mild hearing loss, and 30% had moderate to severe hearing loss. Dementia occurred least often among those with normal hearing (6%), more often among those with mild hearing loss (9%), and most often among those with moderate to severe hearing loss (17%). That’s a large increase in risk, particularly for those whose hearing loss is moderate to severe.

What else to know about this study

The study sample was selected to make it possible to analyze subgroups by age and apply findings to a diverse population. The sample included additional participants ages 90 years and older, and additional participants who identified as Black. Of the 2,413 total participants, 53% were ages 80 years and older, 56% were female, 19% were non-Hispanic Black, 4.5% were Hispanic, and 74% were non-Hispanic white.

Also, unlike previous research, this study looked objectively at hearing loss and dementia. Prior research had shown that hearing loss is thought to account for about 8% of all dementia cases worldwide. Exactly why the connection exists is not known.

It’s important to note that most large studies that found this link were based on questionnaires that people fill out. In other words, no one actually measured the hearing of those participating in the study to make sure that they had hearing loss — or that their hearing was really normal.

In this new study, however, the investigative team used an electronic tablet-based audiometer to evaluate participants’ hearing for four pure tone frequencies that are most important for understanding speech. So, for the first time in a large study, there was objective measurement of hearing loss.

How do hearing aids reduce the risk of dementia?

If you have hearing loss, does that mean you’re doomed to develop dementia? Not at all. This study found that those with moderate to severe hearing loss could significantly reduce their risk of dementia simply by using hearing aids.

This research helps us understand why hearing loss causes dementia. Here’s the connection:

There is increasing evidence that the more the brain is stimulated, the less likely it is that dementia will develop. When there is hearing loss, auditory stimulation is reduced. This, by itself, likely increases dementia risk. But even more important is that when an individual suffers from moderate to severe hearing loss, they are less likely to participate in social activities. Perhaps they are embarrassed about their hearing loss. Or they may simply find it unrewarding to attend a social event when they cannot hear what is going on.

It turns out that social activities are one of the best ways to stimulate the brain, as there is evidence that our brains evolved to facilitate social behavior. Given all this information, you won’t be surprised to learn that reduced social activity has been linked to cognitive decline. Thus, this new study provides additional evidence that the reason hearing loss increases the risk of dementia is because hearing loss reduces brain stimulation — both directly and through reduced social interaction.

What to do if you have hearing loss

Don’t let hearing loss raise your risk of dementia.

  • Keep your ears clean. (But remember, never put anything in your ears smaller than your elbow. Ask your doctor if you’re not sure how to clean your ears.)
  • If you can’t hear and you don’t have hearing aids, get them. Hearing aids now available over the counter can help many people with mild to moderate hearing loss.
  • If you have hearing aids, wear them.
  • If your hearing aids aren’t working, get them fixed.
  • Don’t be passive — ramp up your social life and other activities.

All these things will help to reduce your risk of dementia. And you might just find that, despite some hearing loss, you’re enjoying life more.

About the Author

photo of Andrew E. Budson, MD

Andrew E. Budson, MD, Contributor; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Andrew E. Budson is chief of cognitive & behavioral neurology at the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, lecturer in neurology at Harvard Medical School, and chair of the Science of Learning Innovation Group at the … See Full Bio View all posts by Andrew E. Budson, MD


No cost, low-cost, and bigger splurges for climate-conscious gifts

A deep blue and silver glass planet Earth in the middle of a blurred colorful, prismatic background

Looking for gifts to give or donate this year? Climate-conscious gifts come in many guises. They may directly support our environment, for example, or aim to reduce fossil fuel use and electronic, textile, and food waste. Or they might offer enjoyable, creative ways to connect, reuse, and recycle — and possibly even regift.

"Our purchases and choices impact our climate and planet," notes Dr. Wynne Armand, a physician and associate director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for the Environment and Health. Small steps like these do help, she says, even when the complex issues of climate change leading to health-compromising pollution, extreme weather, and a stressed planet feel so large and overwhelming.

"Unquestionably, we need bold, strong leaders to seek policy changes that address these problems at a systems level. But, as individuals we can make a difference through small steps," says Dr. Armand. "Our choices help drive cultural and market shifts that hopefully push our neighbors, businesses, and policy leaders in the right direction."

Four climate-conscious principles for gifting

  • Channel the 5 Rs. Refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, and only then recycle. Say no to excess. Comic sections from print newspapers or beautiful images from last year's calendars or magazines make great envelopes and gift wrap. If you're choosing clothes, consider buying upcycled clothing or at resale shops, as appropriate.
  • Beware of greenwashing. Eco-consciousness is big business, and the benefits of what you buy may be questionable. If you have a small lawn that needs infrequent maintenance, says Dr. Armand, keeping a trusty (albeit gas-fueled) mower could be a better choice for the planet than buying an electric mower, when factoring in upstream costs of natural resources and the carbon footprint required to manufacture and ship the new — and toss out the not-so-old. (Alternatively, maybe it's time to replant that lawn with wildflowers and vegetables?)
  • Skip what's not needed. A new backpack crafted from water bottles? Another sweater to add to a closetful? If there's no apparent need, think twice about purchases.
  • Double down on experiences and connection. Think concert tickets, museum passes, or energetic options like rock-climbing gym passes and outdoor skills classes. "Gifts of experience are great, especially for people who already have all they need. If you buy for two or try a skills swap you also get to enjoy that time together," says Dr. Armand.

25 climate-conscious gifts

Below are 25 suggestions for climate-conscious giving intended to work with many budgets.

Small but mighty climate-conscious gifts

1. Soft, warm sweaters, thick socks, or puffer vests can help people turn down the heat, saving energy resources and money.

2. Rechargeable batteries reduce materials and packaging waste.

3. An electric kettle, induction hot plate, or toaster oven can help limit indoor pollutants from gas stoves.

4. Perfectly Good Food: A Totally Achievable Zero Waste Approach to Home Cooking aims to pare back food waste and is available online.

5. Shop local artisans and craft fairs rather than buying online.

6. Plants brighten any room and help scrub the air: choose easy-care varieties, such as succulents, colorful coleus, and some herbs.

7. Protect the natural world: birds, bees, and other insects could use your help. Consider a small bird feeder that attaches to a window, a bee house, gardening tools, or seeds for a pollinator garden of colorful flowers.

8. Donate to national or worldwide climate or environmental organizations, local green spaces, and local conservation groups.

9. Gift green bonds for companies that support renewable energy — do your research, though, because greenwashing can be an issue.

10. Secret gifter-giftee swaps with large groups save sanity and throttle back waste.

Bigger splurges on climate-conscious gifts

11. When appliances reach the end of useful life, consider replacing gas stoves, water heaters, washers, dryers, and similar items with electric versions.

12. Plan a week of nearby tours and events with friends or family instead of flights and faraway travel.

13. Gift clothes and tools to enjoy the natural world: for example, warm, waterproof clothing and hiking boots, cross-country skis or skates, good binoculars for bird-watching.

14. Composters (or a weekly composting service subscription) recycle food scraps and organic waste into soil-enriching "black gold."

15. Electric bikes may be a boon if they reduce reliance on vehicles using fossil fuels.

16. Help fund energy-efficient heat pumps or renewable solar energy.

17. Substantial donations and sustaining donor gifts to climate-conscious organizations can help in many ways.

No-cost climate-conscious gifts

18. Offer to gather information on big-ticket items in the big splurges section, including state and federal rebates and 0% loans for heat pumps, energy-efficient furnaces, solar panels, and energy-efficient appliances.

19. Teach a skill one-on-one, such as home repair, skating, chess, training for a mud run, knitting, cooking, orienteering, or gardening, or organize skills swaps with friends.

20. Gift the human power needed to replant portions of a lawn with vegetables or pollinator plants, or make a rain garden (note: automatic download) to help divert storm water.

21. Combine a no-cost reminder of the environmental benefits of no-mow May and leave the leaves campaigns with an offer to help peel back these layers come spring.

22. Friends often want to gift one another — costly generosity that can prompt last-minute candle-buying. As an alternative, gather a small group of friends for a clothing, accessories, and candle swap of new, never-took-the-price-tag-off, nearly new, and well-loved items.

23. Offer a DIY nature or bird walk for two. Try the free Pl@ntnet and Merlin apps if you can't tell a pin oak from a petunia or a robin from a California condor.

24. If you buy for a ton of people, buy in bulk and figure out how to parcel it out in more sustainable packaging.

25. Make dinner, fudge, or another treat with friends — not completely free, but always a great way to gather your community.

About the Author

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Francesca Coltrera, Editor, Harvard Health Blog

Francesca Coltrera is editor of the Harvard Health Blog, and a senior content writer and editor for Harvard Health Publishing. She is an award-winning medical writer and co-author of Living Through Breast Cancer and The Breast … See Full Bio View all posts by Francesca Coltrera

About the Reviewer

photo of Howard E. LeWine, MD

Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Howard LeWine is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Chief Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, and editor in chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. See Full Bio View all posts by Howard E. LeWine, MD