We all know someone who shakes off their hearing loss as yet another inevitability of old age. But according to the latest research, alarm bells should really ring.
Amazingly, half-life hearing loss later increases the risk of dementia by up to 40 percent, according to some studies. That makes it the leading avoidable cause of dementia, experts say.
The Lancet Committee felt that hearing loss between the ages of 45 and 64 should be treated immediately, and simply wearing a hearing aid could significantly reduce the risk of developing the devastating condition in the first place.
In fact, the findings showed that if all hearing loss is treated quickly, almost one in ten cases of dementia can be wiped out.
Amazingly, half-life hearing loss later increases the risk of dementia by up to 40 percent, making it the leading preventable cause of dementia, according to some studies.
Professor Gill Livingston, who led the Lancet Commission review, says, “Suddenly we have a huge chance of preventing disease. Much research now shows that people who correct their hearing loss early have the same risk of dementia as the rest of the population. We once thought that hearing loss was just an early symptom of dementia. Now we know that it may contribute to its development.
“We’re starting to see early signs that preventing or delaying it can be as easy as wearing a hearing aid when hearing loss begins.”
Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how hearing loss affects the brain and contributes to dementia. Some argue that it is a sign of general “neurological frailty” and that hearing loss may be an early symptom of the disease itself.
But mounting evidence suggests that hearing loss comes first and that it directly contributes to the development of dementia.
One reason for the link is that hearing loss causes patients to avoid more social interaction, which in itself is a risk factor for dementia because it reduces the amount of brain stimulation a person receives. In turn, isolation can lead to depression – another known association with the disease, especially if it affects people later in life. Conversely, the more social contact someone above 50 has, the less likely they are to develop dementia.
Prof Livingston says, “The easiest way to be stimulated cognitively is to be able to hear. It is very challenging to be part of a conversation where you have to respond and notice different people in the group. That really makes a difference to socializing. ‘
A recent study found that the worse the hearing loss, the more likely a person would suffer from poor brain function.
But final studies have shown that once a hearing aid is worn, deterioration is slowed – meaning it’s never too late to book that hearing test. Dr. Sergi Costafreda Gonzalez, an associate professor of dementia research at University College London, says, “It’s a bit like high blood pressure.
Simply wearing a hearing aid, pictured above, can significantly reduce the risk of developing the devastating condition in the first place (file photo)
“We now know that even mild problems treated early reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes significantly. Hearing loss, I think, will no doubt be considered the same someday: addressing even a small early-stage hearing loss will benefit from reducing the risk of dementia. ‘
Hearing problems, which affect around 12 million people in the UK, occur as we age due to wear of the sensory cells in the ear. This gradually affects our ability to transmit sound signals to the brain.
And it starts earlier than you would expect. At least ten percent of people aged 40 to 69 will have noticed that their hearing is no longer what it once was. Nearly a third of people over 65 have a significant, measurable loss.
A U.S. study found that in those who were hard of hearing halfway through their lives, their brains were scanned nearly 20 years later, they had more shrinkage in the right temporal lobe – the brain region responsible for interpreting sounds and language, as well as being involved in learning and memory. However, why the brain shrinks remains unknown.
A team led by Dr. Piers Dawes, a lecturer in audiology at the University of Manchester, investigates this using brain scans from about 100,000 people.
Dr. Dawes thinks this may be due to the extra effort of listening and concentrating.
He says, “Because your brain works harder to follow a conversation, there are fewer resources left to help you fully understand or save the situation as a reminder.
“This, in turn, can reduce brain volume in areas that aren’t used that much.”
Studies have also linked hearing loss to smoking and cardiovascular problems, both of which are risk factors for dementia.
Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how hearing loss affects the brain and contributes to dementia. Some claim it’s a sign of general ‘neurological vulnerability’ (file photo)
Smoking damages blood vessels all over the body – including those in the inner ear. “The more you smoke, the worse your hearing,” says Dr. Dawes. “If you can give it up, it will keep what’s left of your hearing and there seems to be some recovery, too.”
Scientists are calling for more evidence to prove that hearing aids protect against dementia, so that policy makers can take more urgent measures to actively promote their use. But just promoting the link between hearing loss and dementia can be enough to convince people to use it.
The Action On Hearing Loss charity estimates that the number of people with some degree of deafness in the UK will exceed 14.5 million by 2031 – equivalent to 20 percent of the population – as the proportion of older people increases and the effects of noise in the workplace and the widespread use of loud headphones becomes clear.
This means that by definition this will contribute to the increase in dementia cases.
Currently, only 40 percent of those who can benefit from an aid actually use one.
Hearing aids are free from the NHS (private buying costs between £ 1,500 and £ 2,800), and tests to assess hearing are often free, not only after a referral from a general practitioner, but at many well-known chain stores such as Specsavers and Boots.
But without having a test, many people won’t realize they even have a problem – because we naturally get used to our hearing, even when it’s bad, according to studies.
The message is simple: don’t just turn up the volume on the television, have your hearing checked and, if it turns out you need a hearing aid, use it.
Has deafness made father’s dementia worse?
John, a retired bank manager, is depicted with Joanna Zara’s mother, Olive
58-year-old Joanna Zara has often wondered if her father’s deafness made his memory problems worse.
“My father was in his sixties when he started to lose his hearing,” said the hatter from Hove, East Sussex. “It started off slightly irritating, but family gatherings and conversations became difficult.”
It wasn’t until her father, John, a retired bank manager in his eighties, that Joanna persuaded him to take a hearing test at Specsavers in Guildford, showing that he needed help in both ears. Despite this, it took years for him to get hearing aids, and the devices stubbornly remained on his nightstand.
John – who had early symptoms of dementia by then – grumbled that they were “worse than useless.” Intrigued by the link between dementia and hearing loss, Joanna was tested in her early 50s and discovered she had mild hearing loss. She does not need a hearing aid but goes for regular checks. “It worries me,” says Joanna, whose father died in 2016 at the age of 93.
But when the time comes when she needs treatment, she says she won’t hesitate, as it has now been proven to reduce the risk of dementia. “My hearing loss is marginal, but if I was told I would benefit from a device, there is nothing to lose and so much to gain.”