Growing research is shining light on the association between dementia and hearing loss, with considerable opportunities being identified for the possible role of audiology in future dementia support.

An estimated 459,000 Australians currently live with dementia, a figure that’s anticipated to rise to over one million by 2058 (Dementia Australia, 2018).

Although the exact mechanisms of hearing loss as a risk factor for developing dementia are still unknown, recent research suggests that hearing loss potentially increases long-term risks of cognitive decline and incidental dementia.

Lady Holding Cochlear Implant

With someone diagnosed with dementia around the world every three seconds (Alzheimer’s Disease International, 2020), the question of whether hearing loss may be linked brings the need for prevention and early intervention related to hearing loss support into sharp focus.

Dr Dimity Dornan AO, Founder of Hear and Say and Bionics Queensland, said that hearing loss had a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of an individual when left untreated, particularly as it was typical for people to wait many years before acting.

“We commonly hear that people find it easier to avoid conversations altogether when hearing becomes difficult and frustration grows, which often leads to social isolation, anxiety and eventual loss of independence,” said Dr Dornan.

Dr Dornan acknowledged that further research was still required to determine hearing loss as an independent risk factor for dementia, and to support the positive impact that assistive hearing technology such as hearing aids can have in reducing the risk of developing these lifechanging brain disorders.

However, the signs are promising: a prospective study spanning 25 years of 3,777 people aged 65 or older (Amieva et al, 2018) found there was higher incidence of dementia in people with self-reported hearing problems, except for those already using hearing aids. Another study demonstrated that hearing loss was linked with cognitive decline, but only in those individuals not using hearing aids (Ray et al, 2018).

These studies and others show the growing evidence that hearing loss and the resulting lack of auditory stimulation in the brain, known as auditory deprivation, may result in long-term cognitive decline.

Dr Dornan noted that although there was still much to learn, there was a clear need for active prevention, intervention and treatment of hearing loss, particularly for ageing Australians, to reduce the likelihood of exposure to this dementia risk factor in the long term.

“Of course, not all cases of dementia will be preventable. However, of all the things you can do to keep your brain stimulated, active and healthy, keeping on top of your hearing and monitoring any changes is critical to ensure that you can stay social and communicate with your loved ones for life.”

References and further reading

Alzheimer’s Disease International. (2020). About Alzheimer’s & Dementia. https://www.alzint.org/about/

Amieva, H., Ouvard, C., Meillon, C., Ruillier, L., & Dartigues, J.F. (2018). Death, Depression, Disability, and Dementia Associated with Self-Reported Hearing Problems: A 25-Year Study. The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, 73(10), 1383-1389.

Deal, J.A., Betz, J., Yaffe,  K., Harris, T., Purchase-Helzner, E., Satterfield, S., Pratt, S., Govil, N., Simonisk, C., E.M., & Lin, F.R. (2017). Hearing impairment and incident dementia and cognitive decline in older adults: The Health ABC Study. The Journal of Gerontology: Series A72(5), 703-709.   

Dementia Australia. (2018). Dementia in Australia: Prevalence Estimates 2019-2058. https://www.dementia.org.au/sites/default/files/documents/2019-2058-Dementia-prevalence-S-T.pdf

Lin, F.R., Metter, E.J., O’Brien, R.J., Resnick, S.M., Zonderman, A.B., & Ferrucci, L. (2011). Hearing Loss and Incident Dementia. Archives of Neurology68(2), 214-220.

Livingstone, G., Huntley, J., Sommerlad, A., Ames, D., Ballard, C., Banerjee, S. (2020). Dementia Prevention, Intervention, and Care: 2020 Report of the Lancet Commission. The Lancet Commissions, 396(10248), 413-446.

Ray, J., Popli, G., & Fell, G. (2018). Association of Cognition and Age-Related Hearing Impairment in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, 144(10), 876-882.

Su, P., Hsu, C.C., Lin, H.C., Huang, W.S., Yang, T.L., Hsu, W.T., Lin, C.L., Hsu, C.Y., Chang, K.H., & Hsu, Y.C. (2017). Age-Related Hearing Loss and Dementia: a 10-year National Population-Based Study. European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology274(2), 2327-2334.

Thomson, R.S., Auduong, P., Miller, A.T., & Gurgel, R.K. (2017). Hearing Loss as a Risk Factor for Dementia: A Systematic Review. Laryngoscope Investigative Otolaryngology, 2(2), 69-79.

Zheng, T., Fan, S., Liao, W., Fang, W., Xiao, S., Liu, J. (2017). Hearing Impairment and Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. Neurological Sciences, 38(2), 233-239.

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