Hearing is one of our most important senses. It is central to our ability to communicate and engage with others. Regardless of age or stage, hearing loss has serious implications for our quality of life and ability to function. As stated in the recent WHO Report on Hearing, 2021 “Any decline in hearing capacity at any point during the life course, if not addressed in a timely manner, can adversely affect day-to-day functioning.”
In recent years, more and more research has come to light confirming the link between dementia and hearing loss. According to the updated Lancet Commission 2020 Report, Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care, there are several risk factors for dementia:
In Australia, hearing loss affects 74% of people aged over 70. It is estimated that people with severe hearing loss are five times more likely to develop dementia. Hearing loss is the largest potentially modifiable risk factor for age-related dementia. ( WHO Report on Hearing, 2021)
When other risk factors are also present, there is an even higher risk of dementia. For example, hearing loss and diabetes increase the risk.
There are a number of reasons that hearing loss can lead to dementia.
Age-related hearing loss is believed to lead to reduced auditory nerve responses. This in turn is associated with slower processing speed and brain structural changes. (Delano, 2021)
It is also believed that hearing loss may increase cognitive load, resulting in cognitive impairment on neuropsychological testing. (Strutt, 2021)
Hearing loss is also associated with higher levels of ß-amyloid, a key biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease. (Mun et al 2020)
Hearing loss contributes to both social isolation and loneliness at all ages, more specifically in women and older adults possibly because of decreased participation in activities, or by having a smaller social network. Social isolation is one of the risk factors for dementia.
With the recent release of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Service, now more than ever, we need to support our community to age with grace and ensure the humane care of our elders. This includes finding ways to reduce the incidence and impact of dementia. Hearing loss is a risk factor we can minimise.