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Hearing loss and dementia: Research confirms links

hearing loss and dementia
Over the last decade, researchers have been presenting increasing evidence of a direct link between hearing loss and dementia. Both previous and current research have demonstrated this link. Now new research also shows that hearing devices may reduce dementia.

What is Dementia?

The Alzheimer’s Association defines dementia as a overall term rather than a single disease. They state, “disorders grouped under the general term ‘dementia’ are caused by abnormal brain changes. These changes trigger a decline in thinking skills, also known as cognitive abilities, severe enough to impair daily life and independent function. They also affect behavior, feelings and relationships.”
Put simply, dementia occurs when a disease damages nerve cells in the brain. Nerve cells carry messages between different parts of the brain and around the body. If cells are damaged, the brain and body lose their ability to function properly. Brain scans have shown that hearing loss may cause a faster rate of deterioration in some areas of the brain. This advancement makes it easier to see how this connection exists.

Early Symptoms of Dementia

In addition to understanding what dementia is, it is important to know the early signs to look out for with dementia. Many symptoms can be easily dismissed as old age or mistaken for other, less severe conditions. Moreover, while seeking a diagnosis is scary, it is crucial to be proactive and receive the right support. When a diagnosis is caught early, you can continue to live a meaningful life for many years.
According to the Alzheimer’s Society, here are some early signs:
  • Memory loss that affects day-to-day abilities
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Problems with language
  • Disorientation to time and place
  • Impaired judgement
  • Problems with abstract thinking
  • Misplacing things
  • Changes in mood and behavior
  • Changes in personality
  • Loss of initiative

Previous Research Shows Links Between Hearing Loss and Dementia

The National Health Service (NHS) website has hearing loss as the number one component on their list of risk factors for developing dementia. In 2020, the Lancet commission report confirmed the link between hearing loss and dementia to be true. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that a more recent study published in the journal JAMA Neurology has found similar findings from their research. However, the researchers from this study have also found that electronic hearing devices may reduce the risk of developing this devastating disease. In 2022, JAMA Neurology also released a report titled Hearing Aids and Cochlear Implants in the Prevention of Cognitive Decline and Dementia—Breaking Through the Silence.

The researchers from this study have also found that electronic hearing devices may reduce the risk of developing this devastating disease.

Read more: Are hearing loss and dementia linked?

JAMA Report Findings: Hearing Devices May Reduce Dementia

Researchers from the report published in JAMA analyzed eight studies that involved over 127,000 hard of hearing adult participants. The report revealed that hearing aid users had a 19 percent lower risk of long-term cognitive decline compared with non-users.
The scientists responsible for the studies noted three key points from their results:
  1. The analysis provides convincing evidence that hearing aid usage is associated with a considerable risk reduction of cognitive decline.
  2. Future studies should examine patients with no baseline cognitive impairment and patients with mild cognitive impairment.
  3. The report is a testament to the power of pooling studies in meta-analysis. Previous individual studies did not achieve statistical significance.
All in all, this report is arguably the strongest regarding this concern to date. It has received praise for the scope of the studies included, assessment of bias, and depth of statistical analysis of outcomes and potential co-founders.
With dementia being one of the biggest obstacles to aging well, one aim of this study is to raise awareness of the relationship between untreated hearing loss and increased risk of cognitive decline. Many people start to lose their hearing as they get older, but are unaware of the risks. They don’t bother to wear their hearing aids on a regular basis or undergo a hearing evaluation. Hopefully, this study will change that.

Hopes for the Future

Despite the scary nature of the disease, it’s not all doom and gloom. This year, the pharmaceutical company Eisa announced some positive news regarding the results of their trial of the drug, lecanemab. Lecanemab has been proven to slow the development of cognitive decline and dementia. Alzheimer’s Research UK commented, “It is, truly, a historic moment for dementia research. And it’s a vindication of what we at Alzheimer’s Research UK have long believed: that scientific research on dementia and the diseases that cause it will lead to effective treatments.”
You can also keep up to date on further clinical trials that are currently being carried out. There is the “Aging and Cognitive Health Evaluation in Elders trial (ACHIEVE),” and the upcoming ‘Early Age-Related Hearing Loss Investigation trial (EARHLI).”
It is estimated that future research will even more increasing evidence of a direct link between hearing loss and dementia. While we wait for these future results, the authors of the report are recommending that physicians consider hearing evaluation as part of a standard dementia workup. If you are anxious or have questions about your own hearing loss increasing your risk of developing dementia, then please consider seeking support from a healthcare professional.
Author Details
Beth Tingle is a 27-year-old English graduate, and currently resides in Bristol, UK. Beth was born with congenital deafness to an otherwise all hearing family, and is currently navigating life with new sound after receiving cochlear implant surgery in April 2021. She is currently learning BSL.