Preventing hearing loss may be the key to slowing cognitive decline.
Dementia can leave its sufferers and their family members feeling helpless on the best of days. The diseases that we lump into the term “dementia” — including Alzheimer’s — don’t have proven cures, nor do we understand their causes well enough to stave them off. However, a new study provides hope in the form of a relatively straightforward step individuals can take to help reduce the risk of dementia: Take action at the earliest signs of hearing loss by getting hearing aids.
Hearing loss has long been tied to dementia risk among health experts, but the study out of the UK is the clearest proof yet of hearing impairment’s connection to dementia. The results of the 12-year study were staggering, showing that hearing loss without the use of hearing aids can increase dementia risk by 42%.
“The evidence is building that hearing loss may be the most impactful modifiable risk factor for dementia in mid-life,” said corresponding study author Dongshan Zhu, a professor at China’s Shandong University.
What’s more, the study might have actually underestimated the effects of hearing loss. The participants self-reported their hearing impairments, but many people don’t actually realize they have hearing loss until it has become overwhelming. Study author Fan Jiang, of the Centre for Health Management and Policy Research at Shandong University in Jinan, China, noted that his team’s research did not attempt to determine how and why hearing loss might lead to dementia.
“The underlying pathways which may link hearing aid use and brain health are unclear,” Jiang said.
Yet the ties between hearing issues and dementia have been observed by healthcare professionals and experts in the field for many decades. Individuals with hearing impairment often withdraw from normal, everyday activities, particularly social situations that require interaction with others. Over time, this increased isolation can play a role in cognitive decline.
The UK study, which was published in The Lancet public health journal, was no small feat: 437,704 adults in the UK Biobank database participated, with an average age of 56 and a follow-up time of 12 years. While the study showed a clear link between hearing impairment and increased chances of dementia, it also showed that being proactive about hearing loss has significant benefits. Those with hearing loss who do use hearing aids have about the same risk of developing dementia as individuals with no hearing loss whatsoever, which is roughly 1.2%.
“Our study provides the best evidence to date to suggest that hearing aids could be a minimally invasive, cost-effective treatment to mitigate the potential impact of hearing loss on dementia,” Zhu said.
The key is to address the hearing loss early on, so get tested and remain open to getting hearing aids if you want to reduce your risk of developing a dementia disease later in life.
“Our findings highlight the urgent need for the early introduction of hearing aids when someone starts to experience hearing impairment,” Zhu said.
Alzheimer’s is the most common and well-known type of dementia, but it is not the only one. According to the World Health Organization, more than 55 million people worldwide are living with dementia. Health experts expect that number to triple by 2050, making it an even greater threat to individuals, their families, and healthcare systems around the world. Hearing aids might offer the first glimmer of hope for reducing those numbers.