There are currently around 850,000 people with dementia in the UK.1 Dementia describes a group of different brain disorders that can trigger a loss of brain function, including memory, thinking, orientation, comprehension, learning capacity, language, and judgment. These conditions are all usually progressive and can eventually become severe.
For a long time, researchers have linked dementia to hearing loss. Both conditions often occur together as we get older, they can have an impact on each other, and sometimes, one can even be misdiagnosed as the other. Scientists and audiologists know that hearing loss and dementia are linked in several ways, and a wealth of research has been conducted to find out how.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at some of the risk factors for dementia development, and explain the importance of regular hearing tests and protection.
Can hearing loss mimic dementia?
Due to the similarity of their symptoms, hearing loss can sometimes be misdiagnosed as dementia, and vice versa. Both have similar symptoms that frequently overlap with each other. For example, a person who has difficulties with communication, speech, and processing speech can be either showing preliminary signs of dementia or simply a case of hearing impairment. It’s also widely known that people with dementia can have difficulty communicating or responding to complex questions — also common with hearing impairment — which is why the two are often confused.
Can hearing loss increase your risk of developing dementia?
A number of research studies show that loss of hearing, especially in older adults, can cause cognitive decline that may lead to dementia.2, 3, 4, 5 As a result, people with moderate to severe hearing loss are up to five times as likely to develop dementia.6 From brain scan studies, we also know that hearing loss can speed up the onset of dementia or make the symptoms of dementia appear worse.7
The social impacts of hearing loss may also place individuals at a higher risk of developing dementia. For instance, hearing difficulties may reduce quality of life through social isolation, feelings of loneliness and depression, and a loss of independence.8 These factors may, in turn, increase the risk of developing dementia.
Can combined hearing and visual impairment increase the risk of developing dementia?
The link between hearing loss and dementia is already widely known. However, recent research suggests that people with both visual and hearing impairment (known as dual sensory impairment) are nearly twice as likely to develop dementia as those without such impairments.9 Researchers believe that this may be because a decline in both the senses can worsen social isolation, as well as place strain on the parts of the brain needed for good cognitive function.10
Can wearing hearing aids protect against dementia?
While it’s important to understand that there is no current cure for dementia, researchers are investigating ways to protect against its development. In particular, much of the research has been conducted around hearing aids and protection.
An international review published in The Lancet Commission suggested that hearing loss is one of nine key risk factors that could be changed to reduce dementia risk. In particular, unaddressed hearing loss in mid-life was predicted to be the highest potentially modifiable risk factor for developing dementia, being potentially responsible for 9% of cases.11
A more recent review of a number of studies found that correct and consistent hearing aid use was the largest factor protecting against the cognitive decline linked to dementia.12 It is thought that hearing aid use can help to prevent the cognitive decline associated with hearing loss, which could otherwise lead to dementia.
Of course, this does not mean that wearing hearing aids is guaranteed to prevent dementia development. However, it does highlight the importance of regular hearing tests, especially in middle-aged and older adults, to help identify any hearing impairments that may cause problems later on in life. The earlier hearing loss can be identified, the sooner protective measures such as hearing aids can be put in place.
If you’ve noticed a recent change in your hearing, or it’s been a while since your last hearing test, it’s best to have it checked. You can use our free online hearing test tool, or contact your local store to book a hearing test with one of our audiologists.
1. Action on Hearing Loss. 2020. Facts And Figures - Action On Hearing Loss. [online] Available at: https://actiononhearingloss.org.uk/about-us/research-and-policy/facts-and-figures/
2. Mick P, Pichora-Fuller MK. Is Hearing Loss Associated with Poorer Health in Older Adults Who Might Benefit from Hearing Screening?. Ear Hear. 2016;37(3):e194-e201. doi:10.1097/AUD.0000000000000267
3. Wingfield A, Peelle JE. How does hearing loss affect the brain? Aging health. 2012;8(2):107-109. doi:10.2217/AHE.12.5
4. Ferrari S, Monzani D, Gherpelli C, et al. Acquired Hearing Loss, Anger, and Emotional Distress: The Mediating Role of Perceived Disability. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2019;207(6):459-466. doi:10.1097/NMD.0000000000000995
5. Aazh H, Moore BCJ. Factors Associated With Depression in Patients With Tinnitus and Hyperacusis. Am J Audiol. 2017;26(4):562-569. doi:10.1044/2017_AJA-17-0008
6. Paulin J, Andersson L, Nordin S. Characteristics of hyperacusis in the general population. Noise Health. 2016;18(83):178-184. doi:10.4103/1463-1741.189244
7. van Hooren SA, Anteunis LJ, Valentijn SA, et al. Does cognitive function in older adults with hearing impairment improve by hearing aid use? Int J Audiol. 2005;44(5):265-271. doi:10.1080/14992020500060370