Researchers have been studying the relationship between hearing loss and dementia, and while the two conditions may appear unrelated at first glance, emerging evidence suggests a potential link between them.
May the 15th marks the beginning of Dementia Action Week, and in this blog, we explore the connection between hearing loss and dementia and how timely use of hearing aids can help alleviate some of the symptoms of dementia.
What is hearing loss?
Before delving into the association between hearing loss and dementia, let’s first understand hearing loss itself. Hearing loss refers to a reduced ability to hear sounds, ranging from mild to profound. The causes of hearing loss include a variety of factors such as age, exposure to loud noises, genetic predisposition, infections and certain medications.
It can impact a person’s ability to communicate, understand speech and perceive environmental sounds. Hearing loss can be temporary or permanent, and it may be managed through various interventions such as hearing aids, cochlear implants or other assistive devices depending on the cause and severity of the impairment.
Symptoms of hearing loss can vary from person to person, and they may develop gradually over time. Here are some common symptoms of hearing loss:
- Difficulty understanding speech: Struggling to hear and understand conversations, especially in noisy environments or when multiple people are speaking.
- Asking for repetition: Frequently asking others to repeat themselves or speak more clearly.
- Turning up the volume: Increasing the volume on electronic devices, such as the television or radio, to a level that others find too loud.
- Social withdrawal: Avoiding social gatherings or conversations due to difficulties in hearing and understanding others.
- Misinterpreting speech: Mishearing or misunderstanding words or phrases, leading to confusion or communication breakdowns.
- Tinnitus: Experiencing a persistent ringing, buzzing, or other sounds in the ears, which may be associated with hearing loss.
- Struggling with phone conversations: Finding it challenging to hear and comprehend conversations over the phone.
- Difficulty with spatial awareness: Having trouble locating the source or direction of sounds.
- Fatigue and stress: Feeling exhausted or mentally drained after straining to hear and understand conversations.
- Academic or work-related challenges: Children with hearing loss may struggle academically, while adults may face difficulties in work-related tasks that require effective communication.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms, it is advisable to consult with an audiologist for a comprehensive hearing evaluation.
How is hearing loss linked to dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term for a range of cognitive disorders characterised by memory loss, impaired thinking and reduced ability to perform daily activities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for approximately 60-80% of cases.
Whilst there is no way to avoid the onset of dementia, research suggests that managing hearing loss using hearing aids can help lower the risk of dementia and help manage the symptoms of dementia. Several studies have found a higher prevalence of cognitive decline and dementia in individuals with untreated hearing loss than those with normal hearing.
An article by The Lancet Public Health looked at the association between hearing aid use and dementia and found there’s a critical need for more people aged 40-60 to use hearing aids. In this study, 438,000 people in the UK with an average age of 56 were observed for 12 years. One in four people reported some level of hearing loss as they grew older; this group was 42% more likely to be diagnosed with dementia. There are three theories that support this link:
Cognitive load hypothesis
The cognitive load hypothesis proposes that hearing loss places an increased burden on cognitive resources, leading to cognitive decline over time. When individuals with hearing loss struggle to hear and understand conversations, they need to allocate more mental effort to process and interpret speech. This constant cognitive load may contribute to the development or progression of dementia.
Social isolation and cognitive stimulation
Hearing loss can also lead to social isolation, as individuals may withdraw from social interactions due to difficulties in communication. Social engagement and cognitive stimulation, on the other hand, have been shown to be protective factors against dementia. Lack of social interaction and intellectual stimulation may increase the risk of cognitive decline in individuals with hearing loss.
Common underlying pathways
Additionally, hearing loss and dementia may share common underlying pathways. It has been suggested that both conditions could be linked to vascular disease, inflammation or the accumulation of toxic proteins in the brain. These shared mechanisms could explain the association observed in some studies.
Managing hearing loss to reduce dementia risk
So, can hearing aids help with the onset of dementia? While the precise nature of the hearing loss-dementia relationship is still being investigated, managing hearing loss with hearing aids may help reduce the risk or progression of dementia.
Using hearing aids to manage hearing loss has been shown to improve cognitive function. This is because hearing aids can help to maintain connections within the brain and may aid in the prevention of cognitive decline from factors such as lack of sensory stimulation and reduced social interaction. Here are some management strategies that can be beneficial for those with suspected hearing loss and cognitive decline:
- Regular hearing assessments: Get your hearing tested regularly, especially as you age, to detect any hearing loss early.
- Hearing aids or other devices: If diagnosed with hearing loss, using hearing aids or other assistive devices can improve hearing ability and reduce cognitive load.
- Communication strategies: Employ effective communication techniques, such as facing the speaker, reducing background noise and using visual cues to enhance comprehension.
- Maintain social engagement: Participate in group activities, join clubs and maintain close relationships. This can help combat social isolation and provide cognitive stimulation.
- Cognitive exercises: Engage in mentally stimulating activities like reading, puzzles, learning new skills, or playing musical instruments to keep the brain active.
Is there a connection between hearing loss and dementia?
While the relationship between hearing loss and dementia requires further research, current evidence suggests a potential link between the two conditions. Untreated hearing loss may contribute to cognitive decline and increase the risk of dementia.
By addressing hearing loss and adopting strategies to manage it effectively, individuals can potentially reduce the risk or progression of dementia while improving their overall quality of life. Regular hearing assessments, the use of hearing aids, social engagement and cognitive stimulation are important steps toward maintaining healthy cognitive function.