Hear, hear: Link between hearing loss and dementia

It may not be Daniel’s cup of tea, but Majella O’Donnell went clubbing to remind people to protect their hearing and stick to sensible noise levels. Picture: Sasko Lazarov

Many of us are slow to have our hearing checked, but it could be a symptom of a much more serious health problem, writes Margaret Jennings

How often do you get your hearing tested? Did you know, for instance, that untreated hearing loss is not just about your ears? It can be linked to problems associated with blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and dementia.

In fact, a study published by the University of Manchester at the end of last year suggested that wearing a hearing aid can slow the progress of dementia by up to 75%.

In Ireland, by the time we reach age 55, a quarter of us have significant deterioration in our hearing. By age 65, that increases to one third.

Yet a recent worldwide survey to mark World Hearing Day (March 3) co-ordinated in this country by Hidden Hearing, found that when it comes to people in Ireland with hearing loss, our levels of awareness of the wider implications of poor hearing were less than half of those globally.

And we topped the list in the global sample for putting off treatment, with 22% of us admitting waiting five years or more before seeking medical help for hearing loss.

It seems that as a nation we are caught in a time warp, as a perceived stigma around the loss of this sense continues. We will happily, for instance, get our eyes tested regularly and wear glasses or lenses — with 67% of us doing so, compared to the global averages of 53% and 61% respectively.

However only 25% in the Irish survey with mild to severe hearing loss use hearing aids, whereas the global average is 51%, and in countries like the USA and Australia, it is over 66%.

Audiologist Barry Douglas believes that one reason we are still burying our heads in the sand on this issue is because of associations we have with older hearing aids.

“It’s absolutely stigmatised, which is crazy: there isn’t any reason why we should consider that little thing on the side of your head something to be embarrassed about,” says the Dublin-based Hidden Hearing practitioner.

“But I think people might remember that their granny used to wear a hearing aid and in a country like Ireland where people traditionally went to the health service, it used to be a big thing on the side of the head, and it used to whistle, and she was always fiddling with it — so they have a preconception,” he says.

They will remember technology from 20 years ago and won’t know that hearing healthcare technology has absolutely exploded. They will generally make their decision on whether to go for a hearing test or a hearing aid, based on their own experiences of what they know.

If we got regular hearing tests then we would know all of this — and the step of taking treatment would be a much smaller one, he argues.

There is a cultural stigma associated with a negative ageing self-image as well: “People perceive the solution to the hearing, as getting old, rather than the problem. But what’s more ageing? Somebody sitting there going: ‘What? What did you say?’; or a person wearing a very discreet cosmetic hearing solution, which others generally don’t see?

“It’s the most ironic thing — people will put off coming into me because they don’t want to wear a hearing instrument. Yet when they actually take the step of getting one, and walk out the door, they will end up showing it off.

“So the very reason they put off coming is the very reason they want to show people how small the hearing instrument is — how much it has changed their life.”

Putting our vanity aside however, there is the more serious issue of the link between hearing loss and our general health and wellness.

Ongoing US research in the Medical College of Wisconsin, for instance, has shown that because the inner ear is so sensitive to blood flow, abnormalities in the cardiovascular system are noted in connection with hearing loss.

Older people with hearing loss are significantly more likely to develop dementia over time than those who retain their hearing, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine in the US say.

Because there can be other causes for hearing loss, practitioners can also pick up on conditions, in terms of a person’s middle ear, or head, or neck — and Barry says there are times he has referred clients back to their GPs.

Due to such potential knock-on effects of hearing loss, Hidden Hearing Ireland regularly collaborates with the Irish Heart Foundation and Diabetes Ireland to provide free screening.

While our squinting eyes will be an obvious tell-tale sign that our sight is failing, hearing loss is more gradual.

“The vast proportion of people who come into me, without exception, think that their hearing is better than it is, because they are generally only aware of what they can hear and not what they can’t hear,” adds Barry.

It takes 40-60 minutes in general to do an audiometry test, but just a basic two-to-three minute hearing screening can tell if you need to be referred on further.

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