Over-55s are being encouraged to have hearing tests after a group of scientists discovered there may be a link between hearing loss and dementia. Further studies are being undertaken with the view to discern whether or not wearing a hearing aid could slow down the condition or prevent it altogether.
Dr David Reynolds of the Alzheimer’s Research UK charity was part of the research team. He told the Daily Mail: “Hearing loss is a risk factor which we may be able to modify to reduce the number of people who develop dementia or the rate of progression if they’ve already got it.”
It is thought that as much as a third of the over-55s in the UK have some degree of hearing loss, which could be linked to one in ten cases of dementia. This is according to a review of 13 studies exploring the association between the two conditions was published in The Lancet.
As a result of looking into the link, the scientists believe that identifying hearing loss in middle age and fitting individuals with hearing aids could prevent nine per cent of dementia cases. While this may sound like a small proportion, it is comparable to the other preventative measures that are thought to have an impact.
High blood pressure is said to be linked to two per cent of cases of dementia and obesity is thought to lead to one per cent of diagnoses. With no cure and relatively few treatment options, preventing dementia before its onset could significantly improve the quality of life for many older people.
Alzheimer’s Research UK is now set to team up with University College London in a £600,000-study into hearing aid use. It will focus on the effects of training people to wear the devices and whether this encourages them to continue with hearing aids long term.
More studies need to be carried out in order to verify there is a definite link between hearing loss and dementia, but experts believe there is. Among the reasons they think that the two are connected is that not being able to hear makes people more socially isolated.
An alternative theory is that a part of the brain is actually damaged, directly resulting in dementia. This was corroborated in one study where brain scans showed the auditory cortex – the part of the organ where sounds are processed – was smaller in those with hearing loss.
In other research, it was found that the part of the brain that deals with language was damaged for the hearing impaired. This area of the brain is known to shrink in dementia patients and, when coupled with brain cell loss, is a sign of Alzheimer’s.
Clive Ballard, a professor of age-related diseases at Exeter University, co-authored the study in The Lancet. He said: “If you are not using that part of the brain properly it could start to die off. The lack of stimulation might alter the way brain cells interact and cause atrophy - loss of brain cells.”
It is therefore worth keeping an eye on the hearing of elderly relatives and ensuring they have regular tests. If wearing a hearing aid could make the difference in the battle against dementia, then it is definitely worth doing.