Gradual hearing loss is a common symptom of aging, and studies show that people with untreated hearing loss report more concerns about their memory than people with normal hearing. But, more worryingly, for some people untreated hearing loss may also be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, studies suggest.

The 2020 Report of the Lancet Commission, Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care shows that hearing loss is the biggest risk factor that you can influence against dementia.

The risk of dementia appears to rise as hearing declines, and older people with mild hearing loss who typically find it hard to follow a conversation in a noisy restaurant are twice as likely as those with normal hearing to develop dementia.

  • Mild hearing loss doubles the risk of dementia
  • Moderate hearing loss triples the risk of dementia
  • Severe hearing loss increases the risk of dementia five fold

Hearing loss leads to social isolation which itself has been linked to dementia. Added to this, fewer sounds to interpret can cause the brain to become less active and cognitive.

“The brain might have to reallocate resources to help with hearing at the expense of cognition” says a lead researcher and ear surgeon, Frank R Lin, at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. “That could explain why straining to hear conversations over background noise in a loud restaurant can be mentally exhausting for anyone, hard of hearing or not,” he adds.

The Lancet study recommends the use of hearing aids in those with hearing loss, as a way of protecting against cognitive decline, and keeping the brain actively engaged day by day.

Sadly, if all hearing loss was treated, nearly 1 in 10 cases of dementia could be wiped out.

Hearing loss should never be ignored for patients living with dementia, as living with both conditions presents additional challenges. Both conditions can have an impact on how someone copes day to day, making it harder for them to communicate and for those around them to communicate with them.

Hearing loss can contribute to their disorientation and make their living environment less safe by not hearing alarms, running faucets and so on. For people affected by dementia, hearing aids are recommended to improve their quality of life and make communication easier.

Having regular hearing checks and making the most of the help available in the form of hearing aids is advisable, according to the Alzheimer’s Society. Take advantage of having support from a friend or family member at your hearing test, to help with any questions that might cause difficulty, and to have a familiar voice for speech recognition.

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