In a recent study released by the Journal of the American Medical Association's Network Open, researchers tracked over 16,000 men and women and found that a new diagnosis of hearing loss between ages 45 and 65 more than doubled the odds of developing dementia in the next 12 years.

"Hearing loss is a potential reversible risk factor for dementia, including Alzheimer's disease," said senior study author Charles Tzu-Chi Lee, of National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei.

The study revealed that even mild levels of hearing loss could put people at risk, so hearing protection, screening and the use of hearing aids may be important ways of reducing cognitive decline.

In earlier studies, research suggested that about two-thirds of the risk for dementia is hereditary or genetic. The other one-third of risk is from things that are modifiable, such as hypertension, obesity, depression, diabetes and smoking. Hearing loss accounts for about 9% of the dementia risk in these modifiable factors.

In Lee’s study, among people with hearing loss, new dementia cases were identified at a rate of 19 per 10,000 people, compared with 14 per 10,000 without hearing loss. Overall, hearing loss was associated with a 17% risk increase for dementia.

Lee noted, though, that early identification of hearing loss and successful hearing initiatives can lessen the negative effects of hearing loss. The ideal time to perform hearing loss screening to reduce the risk of dementia is still unclear.

Researchers in the study also looked at subsets of people, and almost all increased risk was concentrated in the 45-65 age group in which dementia risk was 2.21-fold higher with hearing loss. Lee concluded that hearing screenings are recommended for middle-aged people.

It remains that hearing health is vitally important to the human experience and that there is more to hearing loss than just hearing.

Hearing loss affects the way people communicate and connect with one another and can greatly affect overall health in older adults, including their emotional well-being, social isolation and cognition.

Further studies are needed to investigate whether treating hearing loss can decrease the risk of dementia, Lee said.

For the first time in our country’s history, there are now more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 5. With the growing prevalence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in older adults, researchers are now rethinking study approaches to look more at cause and prevention rather than treatments after diagnosis.

Questions about Alzheimer's disease or related disorders can be sent to Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, owner of Dana Territo Consulting, LLC, at thememorywhisperer@gmail.com.