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The Connection Between Dementia and Hearing loss

By Joan McKechnie, BSc Hons Audiology & Speech Pathology

In recent months there has been a focus on studies investigating the connection between unmanaged hearing loss and the progression of dementia. This has further highlighted the crucial role that appropriate management of hearing loss plays in the wellbeing of an individual. In this article we look at reasons why researchers believe that hearing loss may contribute to an acceleration in the progress of dementia.

Aging and Hearing

The most common form of hearing loss is directly linked to the natural aging process in the body. The inner ear contains tiny hair cells that are central to the hearing process. These hair cells help to capture information within incoming sound, which is sent on to the brain to process. As the body ages the functioning of the hair cells can deteriorate. The body is unable to produce new hair cells or repair damaged ones so age related hearing loss is a permanent hearing loss that can be managed, but not ‘cured’. The condition can be seen as early as one's mid 40s, but is extremely common in the over 65s; also an age where other conditions such as dementia can develop. Typically, the following signs of hearing loss are experienced:

  • difficulty hearing in areas that are noisy
  • difficulty hearing the difference between “s” and “th” sounds
  • ringing in the ears
  • some sounds may seem overly loud
  • turning up the volume on the television or radio louder than others
  • asking people to repeat what they say
  • unable to understand conversations over the telephone
Unmanaged Hearing Loss

The deterioration of the ear's hair cells usually occurs over many years, making the resultant hearing loss appear gradually. Often it can take many years of experiencing the signs of hearing loss as well as comments from individuals’ friends and family to accept that hearing ability isn’t what it used to be. Some people will seek help to improve the situation, but a large percentage simply ‘live with it’; perhaps unaware that there are ways to help manage a hearing loss, or unwilling to admit having a hearing loss.

Hearing Loss and Dementia

When someone has an unmanaged hearing loss they usually have to invest significant effort to keep up with conversions, particularly when the conversation is part of a group, and taking place within a noisy environment. Some of these additional efforts include having to ask people to repeat, trying to focus on the speaker lips, trying to catch the most significant phrases and guessing the rest using contextual cues. It is thought that the brain can be overwhelmed by constantly doing these additional cognitive tasks while listening, which could play a part in the progression of dementia. Many people with hearing loss feel frustrated at not being able to hear, or tired by the effort it takes to conduct conversation, so it may seem easier to simply disengage from conversation become socially withdrawn; which in itself has been linked to a susceptibility to dementia.

Management

Any suspected hearing loss should be investigated by having a hearing test. At the end of the test, results will be explained and, if necessary, solutions offered to help manage the condition. One of the more traditional ways is by using hearing aids. There are also ALDs or Assistive Listening Devices available which are designed or adopted for use by those with impaired hearing, such as amplified phones, amplified doorbells or TV listeners.

If you struggling with your hearing, it is a good idea to ask someone you know well to accompany you to the test, to help you understanding your results and options. Those who are over the age of 70; or with family history of hearing loss or history of prolonged exposure to loud noise are strongly encouraged to attend regular hearing tests so that any deterioration can be tracked and managed more quickly.

Bio: Article by Joan McKechnie, BSc Hons Audiology & Speech Pathology. Joan works for Hampshire based HearingDirect.com. Joan is HCPC Registered (Health Care Professions Council).



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