Hearing Loss and Dementia

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) nearly 1 in every 3 adults aged over 65 years has hearing loss.  It affects communication and can contribute to social isolation, anxiety, depression and cognitive (mental) decline.  Alongside this it is estimated that almost half a million people in Australia live with dementia.

A growing body of research suggests that there is a relationship between hearing loss and reduced cognitive function in older adults, including an increased incidence of dementia.  In addition, the risk of dementia increases steeply as the degree of hearing loss worsens.

The exact link between hearing loss and dementia remains somewhat of a mystery although researchers are hard at work looking for answers.  Two theories to explain the relationship are:

  1. There is a common cause for both hearing loss and dementia.
  2. Hearing loss has a direct impact on the brain and an indirect impact on mood and social stimulation both of which could explain changes in the brain leading to dementia.
Hearing Loss and Dementia

The highly regarded Lancet commission published a report in 2017 titled ‘Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care’.    In this they reviewed all the research on this topic and found that risk factors for dementia include genetics, high blood pressure, obesity, low education, smoking, depression, physical inactivity, social isolation and diabetes.  However, the most prominent modifiable risk factor for dementia was hearing loss.  Modifiable means that something can be done about it such as wearing a hearing aid.  The report stated that hearing loss accounted for almost 10% of all new dementia cases.   Likewise, a study published in the esteemed medical journal, ‘The Lancet’, in 2022 found that hearing impairment was associated with both lower cognitive function and brain atrophy (a reduction in brain volume), particularly in the region of the brain connected with hearing.

The great news is that early intervention and treatment of hearing loss with hearing aids or cochlear implants has been shown to have a positive impact on reducing the risk of dementia.  So, what actions can you take now?   The first step is to have your hearing assessed by a qualified audiologist.  If the results show normal hearing do what you can to prevent hearing loss in the future.  Tips (backed by research) include:

  1. Avoid loud noise and/or wear high quality ear protection at all times.
  2. Quit smoking.
  3. Eat a healthy diet.
  4. Exercise regularly. You don’t need to run a marathon, a short daily walk around the block is beneficial.

If you do have a hearing loss it is important to discuss hearing devices with your audiologist as these are likely to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.   In addition, they will help preserve your independence, mental abilities, emotional and physical health, work, home, and social lives. A full, happy life keeps your brain active!

Both identification and management of hearing loss are particularly important when a person has dementia. Without this, dementia may appear worse or get worse. For example, if a person with dementia has hearing loss this will make it harder for them to follow conversation and they will appear more confused and withdrawn.  In addition, both hearing loss and dementia can cause social isolation and this is compounded when one has both conditions.    Our audiologists have significant experience working with adults who have dementia and will treat you or your family member with care and respect.

In summary, research indicates that there is a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline including dementia.  It is estimated that hearing loss accounts for almost 10% of new dementia cases.  The great news is that hearing loss is modifiable meaning you can do something about it.  It is recommended that you book an appointment with one of our audiologists who will provide a comprehensive hearing assessment, including speech testing.   They will also discuss options for you moving forward allowing you to take control of your future.