The No. 1 Test to Get After a Dementia Diagnosis

"I want you to remember these three words: Banana, sunrise, chair."

You nod to your doctor, who then goes on to ask you questions like what day it is and who the president is, and to name something that happened in the news recently.

Then he asks you to repeat those three words.

If you've ever been in this situation, you've likely had a screening for memory loss. But what if you replied with "Cabana, surprise, hair" instead?

A new study published in the Canadian Journal on Aging showed that folks with untreated hearing loss may score lower on common tests meant to diagnose problems like dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

According to the American Speech Hearing Language Hearing Association, hearing loss is a growing problem with among folks 65 and older.  They cite a report from the CDC that states hearing loss is the third third-most prevalent health condition for folks 65 to 74 (the top two are arthritis and high blood pressure). It moves up to the second most prevalent condition for folks over 74, just behind arthritis.

This new study adds to the literature surrounding the link between hearing loss and memory loss... but offers some hope. The small group of participants took both a hearing assessment test as well as a memory loss test. Doctors gave their recommendations after the memory one, but then received the results of the hearing test.

Based on the hearing results, some doctors changed the memory loss diagnosis.

That's the difference between possibly starting a memory loss drug and simply correcting the problem with hearing aids.

According to the researchers, symptoms of hearing loss and the beginning of problems like dementia and Alzheimer's are similar. A wife might complain her husband isn't listening. Kids might complain that mom is distracted or can't repeat what she's been told.

It's important to screen for hearing loss first and see if that corrects the problem. In fact, folks typically wait years before seeking help for hearing loss. So if your loved ones complain that you aren't listening or paying attention, ask yourself (and them) if you've had any other symptoms of hearing loss. These include:

  • Turning the television or radio up louder (ask your family if it's too loud for them)
  • Blaming people for mumbling, particularly in crowded areas (like restaurants)
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Trouble understanding people on the phone
  • Unable to hear the beeping of your microwave or other appliance 

We've written before about the importance of hearing tests. That's because left untreated, we know that hearing loss can...

  • Increase cognitive load (brain forced to work harder),
  • Change brain structure and function, and
  • Decrease social engagement. 

All three of these factors can affect the brain and lead to cognitive decline and the memory loss seen in dementia. So not only do hearing-loss symptoms mimic those of dementia, but untreated hearing problems also cause dementia.

So if you experience any symptoms of hearing loss, go and get your hearing tested. If you've never had a hearing test, it's a good idea to get a baseline test done and recheck as needed. Be sure to ask about insurance, as some providers will offer coverage for an evaluation. However, most insurance plans won't cover much for hearing aids. And keep in mind that hearing evaluations held at stores that sell hearing aids often will try to push you to purchase a hearing aid.

A more affordable option – try a phone test to see if you need to go in for a full test. The National Hearing Test is a simple screening test you can take in the privacy of your own home for an $8 fee. You register online, pay, and receive a code to use. Then get on the phone, call the number, and punch in your code.

It only takes about 10 minutes and evaluates both ears. The key is to follow up with a doctor within a year if you show any signs of impairment. You can learn more about it right here.

Taking care of your hearing will go a long way toward maintaining your brain health. So if your doctor insists on doing a memory test first, ask for a hearing one as well.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
January 31, 2019