The links between hearing loss and dementia
We have known for many years that hearing loss is a treatable risk factor for dementia. More recent data indicates that even people who experience very mild hearing loss, or those who report having difficulties hearing conversations in noisy environments, are twice as likely to develop dementia later in life.
In this article, we explore the links between hearing loss and dementia, and how hearing aid use may help.
Why is there a link between hearing loss and dementia?
Hearing loss impacts on much more than just our ability to hear. Being able to hear what is going on around us, and being actively involved in social interactions, contributes hugely to our quality of life and overall health.
Avoiding spending time with those we love because we struggle to hear can lead to social isolation and loneliness, and consequently this may lead to anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, and dementia.
So, why might there be a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline? Researchers don’t yet have all the answers but one theory is that people who don’t hear well tend to not socialise as regularly, having fewer and less stimulating conversations. This is thought to negatively affect cognitive ability.
Other theories relate to cognitive load and brain structure. With untreated hearing loss, the brain gets overworked by constantly straining to understand speech and sounds and needs to recruit help from other brain areas to assist in making sense of things. This may lead to an inefficient and overworked brain.
Another theory is that brain cells may shrink from lack of stimulation and reduce brain connections, including the areas which process sound.
Can hearing aids help prevent dementia?
Research is promising in this area, as there is now emerging data which indicates that hearing aid use may slow cognitive decline in older people who have age-related hearing loss.
One study of 4000 people showed that those who experienced hearing loss, and who didn’t use hearing aids, had a higher diagnosis rate for dementia and depression. However, those who did use hearing aids experienced cognitive decline at the same rate as people who had no hearing loss.
Researchers proposed that those who used hearing aids were able to hear better and participate more fully in life, and by keeping the brain and body more stimulated, there was less risk of cognitive decline over time.
Although evidence is still emerging, we do know that there are no reported disadvantages to wearing hearing aids. Hearing aids help most people who try them, allowing more social engagement and a better quality of life.
Therefore, with the rate of dementia currently doubling every 20 years, anything we might do to reduce this risk is certainly worth investigating.
So, whilst there are still some debate around whether hearing loss causes dementia, or if hearing aids can prevent dementia, we do know these three things:
- Dementia is more common among people who experience hearing loss.
- People who have untreated hearing loss tend to develop cognitive decline earlier than contemporaries who have normal hearing.
- People who have untreated hearing loss report more concerns about their memory than those who have normal hearing.
If you think you may be experiencing some hearing loss, don’t delay in gaining control over your health. Our online hearing test is often the first step in determining whether you may have a hearing loss.
If the online test indicates that you may be experiencing difficulties with your hearing, we will recommend a full diagnostic hearing assessment. During your appointment, we encourage you to complete a short cognitive screen while we investigate your hearing.
- Amieva et al. 2015, Self-Reported Hearing Loss, Hearing Aids, and Cognitive Decline in Elderly Adults: A 25-Year Study.
- Lin FR, Yaffe K, Xia J, Zue QL, Harris TB, et al. (2013). Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline Among Older Adults. JAMA Intern Med. 173(4). doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.1868.
- Stevenson JS, Clifton, L, Kuzma, E, Littlejohns, T. (2021). Speech-in-noise hearing impairment is associated with an increased risk of incident dementia in 82 039 UK Biobank participants. Alzheimer’s & Dementia. 2021: 1-12.
- Sung YK, Lingsheng L, Blake C, Betz J, Lin FR. (2016). Association of Hearing Loss and Loneliness in Older Adults. J of Aging and Health. 28(6):979-994.