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Hearing Loss and Dementia

There’s a complicated relationship between your hearing loss and cognitive function. Hearing loss may predict or accelerate dementia, according to recent evidence.

We rely on hearing for many day-to-day activities like working. It also helps us build and nurture relationships. We need good hearing to chat with strangers, enjoy dinner with friends or talk deeply with our loved ones. Those activities also help to keep our brains working properly.

Poor hearing undermines our relationships and makes us increasingly reliant on others. The knock-on effects of poor hearing include loneliness, depression and a loss of independence. Those same factors increase the risk of developing dementia.

Imagine a family with a difficult child who hogs most of the parental attention meaning the better-behaved siblings are unintentionally overlooked. Hearing loss affects your brain in a similar way. When it’s difficult to hear, your brain has to work harder to decode and process the sounds around you. It dedicates more and more of its resources to help you hear what’s going on, meaning it may neglect other important tasks like your working memory.

You can actually see that in brain images. People with poor hearing lose more grey matter over time than people with good hearing. And that loss isn’t just in the brain regions that relate to hearing, suggesting that hearing loss affects other cognitive processes.

Treating early hearing loss might save your brain from that extra work, potentially delaying or preventing dementia. In 2017, Professor Gill Livingston and her colleagues from University College London published an article in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal in the UK. Professor Livingston and her team summarised the results of 13 studies that investigated the link between hearing loss and the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. They found that mid-life hearing loss was a significant but potentially modifiable risk factor for dementia. Another study of nearly 2000 people with an average age of 77, found a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline in older adults. Older people with hearing loss had an increased risk of developing dementia over the next 10 years. That risk increased with the severity of their hearing loss.

Professor Livingston and her team estimate that managing hearing loss and other modifiable risk factors could potentially prevent or delay about a third of dementia cases.

You can reduce your risk of hearing loss by:

  • Engaging with friends and family
  • Being physically active
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Controlling other conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Stopping smoking and not drinking too much alcohol

If you (or your family members) are worried about your hearing, then it’s important to see an audiologist as soon as possible. Ear Health’s audiologists can prescribe various treatments to protect or improve your hearing.

That changes your dementia risk. Treating hearing loss means your brain doesn’t have to work intensely on your hearing any more, so it can pay due attention to its other tasks. Hearing well again also means you can continue to enjoy your relationships and independence, which helps maintain your cognitive function. Good hearing improves your quality of life now and helps to protect it in the future.

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