Hearing Loss and Dementia – clearing up the “confusion”

I have noticed of late that several companies providing hearing aids have been using the recently discovered link between hearing loss and the onset of dementia as a “marketing tool” claiming that age related hearing loss leads to dementia. This can clearly cause alarm in people and indeed I have had a number of people ask me about this with fear and it has caused some concern.

So what is the truth about the relationship between dementia and hearing loss? According to the organisation Dementia Australia, research has identified a number of factors that may increase the risk of developing dementia as well as a number of  factors that may reduce the risk. Risk factors, some of which can be managed though lifestyle changes or appropriate medical treatment, include:

  • low mental and social stimulation
  • physical inactivity
  • depression
  • obesity
  • diabetes
  • hypertension
  • smoking
  • excessive alcohol use
  • poor diet
  • genetic factors

Age related hearing loss is another factor that increases the risk of dementia. Research suggests that people with mild hearing loss maybe twice as likely to develop dementia as those with healthy hearing. People with severe hearing loss may be up to five times more likely to develop the condition according to Professor Frank Lin and colleagues at John Hopkins School of Medicine.

It is important to note that hearing loss is only a “risk factor” and having any form of hearing loss does not mean a person will develop dementia.

What we do know for sure is that hearing loss does reduce peoples quality of life in all sorts of ways, social isolation can lead to feelings of depression and loneliness as well as a loss of independence. These factors in turn may lead to an increased risk of developing dementia. Hearing loss also places an additional load on the mental resources of peoples the brain has to work harder to make sense of what is going on around it. This additional load may mean there are fewer resources available for memory and other cognitive functions which may lead to changes in the brain and brain function.

Research is ongoing and the link between hearing loss and the onset of dementia is still being explored. However hearing loss should always be addressed by properly fitted hearing aids that can ensure that functionality and communication skills can be maintained throughout ones life.

 

References:

  1. Professor Frank Lin and his colleagues from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine published a 2011 article in Archives of Neurology reporting that severity of hearing loss is associated with incidence of dementia: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3277836/. Read more about Professor Lin’s work here: linresearch.org
  2. Professor Gill Livingston and her colleagues from University College London published a 2017 article in The Lancet summarising 13 studies that investigated the link between hearing loss and risk of cognitive decline and dementia (within a broader analysis of a large set of potential risk factors for dementia). They reported that mid-life hearing loss is a significant but potentially modifiable risk factor for dementia and argued that management of hearing loss might help delay or prevent dementia cases: discovery. ucl.ac.uk/1567635/. Read more about Professor Livingston’s work here: iris.ucl.ac.uk/iris