As we age, seniors face the reality that dementia is a possibility and that, in some respects, whether we get it or not is out of our hands. Simply getting older is the biggest risk factor, followed by genetics.
The good news is that there are factors we can address, like diet, lifestyle and managing blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes.
But a study published earlier this month in the journal JAMA Neurology looked at hearing loss, which is found in about two-thirds of adults over 70.
The analysis of 31 other studies concludes that, for people with hearing loss, hearing aids reduce their risk of long-term cognitive decline by 19%.
However, there are a few caveats because this study relies heavily on observational research. Other research has shown that hearing is the biggest modifiable risk factor.
Researchers say there are three theories that could explain the connection between hearing loss and dementia.
The first is reduced socialization.
People who have hearing loss tend not to listen to radio, TV or other media programs that are educational and can stimulate the mind. Many tend not to go out and socialize as much so they are not having as much cognitively stimulating conversation.
The second explanation is increased cognitive load. Because of changes within the ear, the brain is getting a garbled signal that takes more effort to process, effort that should be spent forming a memory or understanding meaning.
Finally, the experts say parts of the brain associated with sound, speech and memory formation actually shrink in people with hearing loss.
A major problem in dealing with hearing loss has been the lack of access to care and the high prices for hearing aids that many seniors cannot afford. However, the new availability of over-the-counter hearing aids could have a dramatic impact on that.
There is a stigma, as well. People associate hearing aids with old age. But for a generation of baby boomers, they can be key to staying vibrant and healthy.