Hearing loss afflicts many older people, but it never rains but it pours. A recent study showed that those who have poor hearing in late middle age have a higher risk of developing dementia later in life.
Robert Perneczky of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Hospital said at the start of the dementia congress “ResDem” in Munich with about 200 scientists from all over the world that there is concrete new evidence for this.
“We now also know that the use of hearing aids is a cost-effective, effective method of improving mental abilities and possibly also reducing the risk of dementia,” said the psychiatrist and head of the Alzheimer’s therapy and research center at the clinic.
However, Perneczky says that people who are deaf from birth or who suffer from hearing loss at a young age do not generally have an increased risk of dementia.
A relatively new study from Taiwan with health data of around 16,000 people shows that hearing-impaired people between the ages of 45 and 64, in particular, have a higher risk of dementia than their peers without hearing difficulties.
“In the list of new risk factors, middle-aged hearing loss is the most important factor,” said Perneczky.
This unexpected finding opens up new possibilities for effective action against the disease.
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What did the study say?
The relationship between dementia and hearing loss has been known for some time. According to a leaflet of the German Alzheimer Society on hearing loss and dementia, “Lack of acoustic stimuli can promote the development of dementia or accelerate its progression”. Limited hearing and dementia could be related in different ways. “Symptoms of dementia and the consequences of hearing impairment may be similar. This can lead to misdiagnosis,” it continues.
Ellen Nickel, a consultant on the society’s Alzheimer’s phone, added: “It is certainly a problem when the elderly who suffer from dementia are also hard of hearing – and one causes the other”.
More than 1.6 million people in Germany have dementia, two-thirds of them Alzheimer’s. With increasing life expectancy, three million dementia patients are expected by 2050. The disease is still incurable.
The researchers also want to discuss at the congress how they can put the new findings into practice. “Perhaps we should use hearing aids earlier,” said Perneczky. Often hearing loss remains undetected. In Germany, the provision of hearing aids is good. “But people often don’t use it. Hearing aid means that one is old.
According to Perneczky, there are certain risk factors for dementia, including middle-aged hearing loss, depression, diabetes, smoking, little exercise, high blood pressure, and obesity. “If the blood vessels are damaged, the risk of dementia increases.”
Why untreated hearing loss later increases the risk of dementia and cognitive decline is not clear. On the one hand, people with poor hearing often withdraw from their social life – and thus have fewer impulses for the brain. They also develop depression more easily, which in turn is a risk factor for them. One reason could be that a lack of auditory stimuli lowers brain activity and the brain is not trained. Conversely, another thesis assumes that the constant analysis of sounds over the years is an enormous feat of strength for the brain and makes overstraining more susceptible to dementia.