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

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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


What to do when driving skills decline

photo of a square-topped gold car key and a gold car on a key ring against a deep yellow background

Part 2 of a two-part series on making decisions about driving as we age. Read Part 1 here. 

It’s a simple but unfortunate fact: driving skills can wane over time.

Eventually, driving can become unsafe for an older driver, their passengers, and others on the road. If you notice a decline in driving abilities in a loved one, or in yourself, what’s the best way to handle this?

If you’re an older driver: Create an action plan

If you’re an older driver, don’t wait for a near-miss or an accident to think about the next steps. Planning ahead can help you tackle fixable issues, make necessary transitions easier, and avoid harming yourself or someone else.

Here are six measures you can take right now:

Have a frank conversation with a trusted friend or family member. After driving with them as a passenger, ask whether they are worried about your driving. Don’t disregard their comments, even if they share things you don’t want to hear.

See your doctor and talk about your driving. Is it harder to see at night? Are you finding you’re slower to react? Ask your doctor about medical care that can help, such as cataract surgery, treatment for sleep apnea, or adjustments to medications that might affect driving.

Take a self-evaluation test or an on-road test.AAA has tools to help with this, or you can check with your local department of motor vehicles for options. Even if you feel it’s unnecessary, a driving test can be reassuring to your loved ones that you’re still safe behind the wheel.

Take driving classes. In many places, there are general refresher courses, courses for defensive driving, and even simulators that don’t require actual road tests. AAA and AARP offer online courses that can help you improve your driving. (And by the way, these courses may also reduce the cost of your auto insurance!)

Consider alternatives to how you drive. Stick to roads that are close to home or to routes that have traffic lights (rather than having to decide when traffic is clear enough to turn). Consider giving up night driving if that is particularly difficult.

Make adjustments to your car that can help. Examples include using a steering wheel cover to improve your grip or changing the position of your seat to improve your view of the road. Check out the CarFit program that aims to optimize the “fit” of a driver in their car.

In addition, explore options that don’t require you to drive as often or at all:

  • grocery delivery
  • public or senior transportation (if offered or available where you live)
  • carpooling with friends or family
  • ride-hailing services or taxis
  • hiring a driver.

Cost and availability may be barriers, but it’s worth looking into these options.

If you’re a concerned family member or friend: Start a conversation

With so much at stake, the language you use matters. So, it’s a good idea to think ahead about how to talk about these challenges.

Put safety and solutions first. It’s best not to lead by criticizing driving skills. Instead, talk about driving with safety and solutions in mind, such as the options described above.

Choose your words carefully. It helps to avoid threats or confrontational language: rather than saying “Your driving is terrible so I’ve taken away your keys,” focus on safety and support:

  • Let’s talk about how I can help so you don’t have to drive. I can drive you to get your groceries on Sundays and we can make a day of it!
  • How do you think those dents got on your car? Are you having trouble with your vision?
  • We’d all feel terrible if you had an accident and got hurt or hurt someone else.

Offer to go for a ride together and then to talk about specific concerns, such as staying in the proper lane, changing lanes, making left-hand turns, speed, or sudden braking. Encourage consideration of a self-evaluation or on-road test, and driving classes to help polish skills.

Use examples from familiar experiences. It can be helpful to remind your loved one how his or her parents or grandparents had to cut back on their driving, or how an older neighbor was an unsafe driver.

Focus on the risks posed by other drivers. Aggressive or unpredictable drivers can pose more danger to older drivers with slower reaction times.

How else can families or friends of older drivers be helpful?

  • Consider whether to contact their doctor. Ask their doctor if it’s possible to talk with your loved one or friend about their driving. State regulations vary on mandatory reporting of conditions that affect a patient’s ability to drive. Be aware that some doctors may be reluctant to report their patients to their registry of motor vehicles, due to concerns about patient privacy or jeopardizing the patient-doctor relationship.
  • Look into rules and regulations around older drivers where your loved one lives. Illinois is currently the only state that requires a road test for older drivers. But many states require vision tests and in-person renewal with increasing frequency for older drivers.
  • Consider reporting an unsafe driver to traffic safety authorities. This may feel like a betrayal, but if other efforts have failed this option might be better than waiting until there’s a serious accident.

The bottom line

In the future, safe, driverless cars may be a solution to the challenge of waning driving skills among older drivers. But we’re not there yet.

Right now, we should all acknowledge that it’s not easy to address concerns about impaired older drivers. My best advice is that older drivers and their loved ones try to talk about ways to remain a safe driver and put a plan in place. Ideally, we all would start the conversation well before any driving problems are evident.

And it may take more than one conversation. Many more. But let’s face it: sooner or later, most drivers will have to stop driving. For some older drivers, that time may be now. For the rest of us, recognizing this eventuality could help when our time comes.

About the Author

photo of Robert H. Shmerling, MD

Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School. … See Full Bio View all posts by Robert H. Shmerling, MD


Do children get migraine headaches? What parents need to know

Brown-haired boy lying on colorful spread, looks pained, one hand covering an eye, other eye shut & other hand tucked behind head; concept is migraine headache

Headaches are very common in children and teens. In fact, more than half will suffer from headaches at some point, and by 18 years the majority of adolescents have had them. And while most headaches are part of a viral illness, some are migraines. In fact, recurring migraines affect as many as one in 10 children and teens overall.  

What should you know — and do — if you think your child or teen may be having migraines?

How early do migraines start to occur?

We don’t tend to think about migraines in children, but by age 10, one in 20 children has had a migraine. And migraines sometimes occur even earlier.

Before puberty, boys and girls are equally likely to have them. After puberty, migraines are more common in girls.

Which migraine symptoms are most common in children?

Migraines are often one-sided in adults. In children they are more likely to be felt on both sides of the head, either in both temples or both sides of the forehead.

While it’s not always easy to tell a migraine from another kind of headache, children

  • often report throbbing pain
  • may experience nausea and sensitivity to light and noise.

The flashing lights and other vision changes people often see as a migraine begins are less common in children. However, parents may notice that their child is more tired, irritable, or pale before a migraine begins — and takes a while to get back to normal after it ends.

What causes migraines in children?

We don’t know exactly what causes migraines. We used to think it had to do with blood flow to the brain, but that does not seem to be the case. It appears that migraines are caused by the nerves being more sensitive, and more reactive to stimulation. That stimulation could be stress, fatigue, hunger, almost anything.

Migraines run in families. In fact, most migraine sufferers have someone in the family who gets migraines too.

Can migraines be prevented?

The best way to prevent migraines is to identify and avoid triggers. The triggers are different in each person, which is why it’s a good idea to keep a headache diary.

When your child gets a headache, write down what was happening before the headache, how badly it hurt and where, what helped, and anything else about it you can think of. This helps you and your doctor see patterns that can help you understand your child’s particular triggers.

It’s a good idea to make sure your child gets enough sleep, eats regularly and healthfully, drinks water regularly, gets exercise, and manages stress. Doing this not only helps prevent migraines, but is also good for overall health!

How can you help your child ease a migraine?

When a migraine strikes, sometimes just lying down in a dark, quiet room with a cool cloth on the forehead is enough. If it’s not, ibuprofen or acetaminophen can be helpful; your doctor can tell you the best dose for your child.

It’s important not to give your child these medications more than about 14 days a month, as giving them more often can lead to rebound headaches and make everything worse!

Are there prescription medicines that can help children with migraines?

If those approaches aren’t enough, a class of medications called triptans can be helpful in stopping migraines in children ages 6 and up.

If a child experiences frequent or severe migraines, leading to missed days of school or otherwise interfering with life, doctors often use medications to prevent migraines. There are a number of different kinds, and your doctor can advise you on what would be best for your child.

Some girls get migraines around the time of their period. If that happens frequently, sometimes taking a prevention medicine around the time of menses each month can be helpful.

When to contact your doctor

If you think your child might be having migraines, you should call and make an appointment. Bring the headache diary with you. Your doctor will ask a bunch of questions, do a physical examination, and make a diagnosis. Together you can come up with the best plan for your child.

You should always call your doctor, or go to an emergency room, if your child has a severe headache, a stiff neck, trouble with coordination or movement, is abnormally sleepy, or isn’t talking or behaving normally.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has additional useful information about migraines, and how to treat and prevent them, on their website.

About the Author

photo of Claire McCarthy, MD

Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Claire McCarthy, MD, is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition to being a senior faculty editor for Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. McCarthy … See Full Bio View all posts by Claire McCarthy, MD