Good news for people with hearing loss – a recent study published in The Lancet found that using a hearing aid could reduce the risk of developing dementia.
The study followed over 400,000 people for an average of 12 years and found that those with untreated hearing loss were 42% more likely to develop dementia than those with normal hearing. But for people who used hearing aids, the risk was the same as those with normal hearing.
More than 55 million people worldwide have dementia, and nearly 10 million new cases occur yearly, according to the World Health Organisation.
Linking hearing loss with dementia
This study helps strengthen previous research showing that hearing loss and dementia are related. It also found that hearing loss was more common in men than women and increased with age. People with obesity, heart disease, loneliness, and depression also had a higher prevalence of hearing loss and hearing aid use.
Although researchers are still unsure about why and how hearing loss and dementia are related, there are several ways that hearing loss could lead to dementia.
Relevant factors linking hearing loss and dementia include:
- Cognitive load: When you constantly strain to hear and understand, the brain gets stressed. The resources that would normally go into storing what’s being said in your memory are spent on understanding what’s being said in the first place.
- Brain structure: Hearing loss may affect the structure of your brain in a way that contributes to cognitive problems. Brain imaging studies show that older adults with hearing loss have less grey matter in the part of their brain that receives and processes sounds from the ears. That’s because certain structures of brain cells can shrink when they don't get enough stimulation.
- Social isolation: If it’s hard to hear what people are saying and to follow conversations, you might prefer just to stay home instead of going out and socialising. But you become less social when you cut yourself off from your friends, family, and active life. When your brain doesn’t get enough stimuli throughout the day, you increase your risk of developing dementia.
Keeping your brain healthy
Here are a few tips for maintaining your brain health:
- Keep on learning – any new learning activity develops new neural connections in the brain, which may help you bypass any damage to the brain associated with dementia.
- Be social – having conversations with people will stimulate your brain.
- Exercise at least 30 minutes five days a week – cardiovascular exercise is particularly beneficial.
- Keep a healthy diet - eat lots of vegetables, fruits, legumes, fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds.
Maintaining healthy hearing
Because it’s important to keep your brain healthy, it’s also important to keep your hearing healthy. Despite proven benefits, only 1 in 7 people with hearing loss use a hearing aid.
If you think you might have hearing loss, it is important to consult a hearing care professional. They can assess your hearing, recommend a hearing aid that meets your needs, and provide support as you adjust to using it.
You can also start by taking a free online hearing test.