According to the 2020 report of the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care, the risk of developing dementia can be cut by one third by preventing hearing loss. Simply wearing a hearing aid could significantly reduce the risk of developing the devastating condition, according to the review, led by Prof Gill Livingston of University College London. Encouraging the use of hearing aids for hearing loss and reducing hearing loss in the first place, by protecting ears from excessive noise exposure, are among the report recommendations.
Hearing loss in mid-life is thought to significantly raise the risk of dementia later on, by up to 40 per cent according to some studies, explains audiologist Dolores Madden, Marketing Director, Hidden Hearing Ireland.
Hearing problems occur with age due to wear-and-tear damage to the sensory cells inside the ear. This gradually affects the ability to pass sound signals to the brain.
Around 15% of the Irish population suffer some degree of hearing loss, with men more likely to than women. 35% of people aged over 64 have a significant hearing loss and, in the over 75s, 50% will have age-related hearing loss.
Professor Gill Livingston, who led the Lancet Commission’s review, says: “We once thought that hearing loss was simply an early symptom of dementia. Now we know it may well contribute to its development.
“We’re starting to see early signs that preventing it, or slowing it down, could be as straightforward as wearing a hearing aid when hearing loss starts.”
Scientists are still trying to work out precisely how hearing loss affects the brain and contributes to dementia. One accepted reason for the link is that hearing loss makes sufferers more likely to avoid social interaction, which is a risk factor for dementia, because it reduces the amount of brain stimulation a person gets. Isolation can, in turn, lead to depression – another known association with the disease, particularly if it affects people in later life. Conversely, the more social contact an individual has over the age of 50, the less likely they are to develop dementia.
To be cognitively stimulated and to be able to socialise, you need to be able to hear, Dolores Madden says.