MEDICALLY REVIEWED

Better Hearing and Less Dementia – A New Link

Dementia

In the Asia Pacific region, the number of people with dementia is estimated to increase from 23 million people in 2015 to 71 million people by the year 2050. 

Recently, a new study published in The Lancet established that in people with hearing loss, hearing aid use is associated with a risk of dementia of a similar level to that of people without hearing loss. Dementia is a medical term used to describe the general decline in mental ability that is serious enough to interfere with a person’s ability to live independently. It is a progressive disorder that affects a person’s memory, thinking, behaviour, and ability to perform everyday activities. 

Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is a common condition that affects many elderly. As people age, their ability to hear high-pitched sounds decreases, and they may also have difficulty hearing conversations in noisy environments. Some common causes of hearing loss in older adults include exposure to loud noises over a lifetime (working in a factory for example), changes to the structures of the ear, chronic infections, and certain medications. Other chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension may also contribute to hearing loss. As time continues, hearing loss can lead to social isolation due to difficulty interacting with others, which can contribute to cognitive decline, depression, and an increased chance of developing dementia. 

In a study that tracked 639 adults for nearly 12 years, Johns Hopkins experts found that mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk. Moderate loss tripled the risk, and people with severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia.

Symptoms of dementia

Dementia comes in many forms, with the most common being Alzheimer’s disease accounting for 60-80% of dementia cases. Other forms include vascular dementia (commonly as a result of stroke), Parkinson’s dementia (associated with Parkinson’s disease), and Lewy body dementia. Alzheimer’s dementia tends to have an insidious onset, with one or more of the following symptoms: 

  1. Memory loss: One of the most common early signs of Alzheimer’s disease is forgetting recently learned information, important dates or events, or asking for the same information repeatedly.
  2. Difficulty with problem-solving and decision-making: Alzheimer’s disease can make it difficult for a person to concentrate and make decisions, such as managing finances, paying bills, or following a recipe when cooking.
  3. Challenges with completing familiar tasks: A person with Alzheimer’s disease may have trouble completing tasks that were once easy for them, such as getting dressed, cooking, or cleaning.
  4. Confusion with time or place: Alzheimer’s disease can cause a person to lose track of dates, seasons, or the passage of time, as well as have difficulty remembering their location or orientation.
  5. Changes in mood or personality: Alzheimer’s disease can cause mood swings, depression, apathy, and withdrawal from social activities.
  6. Difficulty with communication: People with Alzheimer’s disease may struggle to find the right words, repeat themselves, or have trouble understanding others, and can become agitated as a result. 

What’s new in the study?

The study is conducted in the UK, and included the hearing and dementia status of 437 704 people aged 40-69 years between 2006 and 2010. Compared with participants without hearing loss, people with hearing loss without hearing aids had an increased risk of all-cause dementia, which is consistent with previously published studies. However, the researchers in this study found no increased risk in people with hearing loss with hearing aids. The positive association of hearing aid use was observed in all-cause dementia and cause-specific dementia subtypes. The risk proportion of dementia from hearing loss was estimated to be 29·6%. Of the total association between hearing aid use and all-cause dementia, 1·5% was mediated by reducing social isolation, 2·3% by reducing loneliness, and 7·1% by reducing depressed mood. 

Conclusion

In people with hearing loss, hearing aid use is associated with a risk of dementia of a similar level to that of people without hearing loss. The study also postulated that up to 8% of dementia cases could be prevented with proper hearing loss management. If you or your family members have hearing issues, book an appointment with your local GP or audiologist for a quick test and potentially explore your options for a hearing aid. 

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