Terry Prone: Hearing aids could be the answer to helping prevent dementia

Terry Prone: Hearing aids could be the answer to helping prevent dementia

You might assume it was a Fitbit, but you’d be wrong. The yoke around the phenomenally athletic guy’s wrist was way more than that, way more than a device to count the number of steps he took on any given day.

At the end of his arm, effectively, was a personalised health clinic, ready to tell him, any time he asked, how well his recovery was going. His recovery from his workout or the party the previous night. The information put him in charge of his body in a new and better way, he told me.

Oh nonsense, I said, he was just handing over his physical autonomy to a gizmo. Not so, he said. The gizmo was just the data-gatherer. The autonomy, enhanced by the data, was his alone. He could change his diet in order to improve his situation, and had done so. He could manage his alcohol consumption to achieve measurable improvement, and had done so.

The thing was, he explained, that although he felt perfectly fine the morning after he’d imbibed a couple of glasses of wine, his little wrist gadget told him he was, in fact, not that fine at all. That input from his electronic guardian angel had resulted in a series of lifestyle changes that would not otherwise have happened.

Up to now, the athletic guy told me, we’ve had myths masquerading as science. Take American physician Lulu Peters who, backin 1918, popularised the conceptof calories. She had “scientific” theories about fast and slow metabolisms. Strong theories that, like unrestrained theories always do, mutated over time into dogmas. One of those dogmas was that if you were cursed with a naturally slow metabolism, eating one bird seed could put fat on you. One bird seed. A wrist computer is going to scotch myths like that so easily.

The problem, of course, is thatinstalling an electronic spy on one’s person or premises tends to have unintended consequences. If a doorbell camera could — and did, last Friday — get a Texan charged with the murder of his sister, who knows what a bracelet monitor could reveal and what the consequences might be.

The spectre, in terms of the health data captured by such devices, is, of course, the possibility that health insurers will gainaccess to it and either increasepremia based on the information or refuse to pay out a claim as a result of something revealed in there among the logged statistics.

Those downsides have to be set against the possibility — not that far away — of an internet link between the content electronically saved on your wrist and the computer in your GP’s office, so the latter can know, before you ever pitch up in their office, all about your current weight, your gait (this seems to be increasingly important), your blood pressure, or your alcohol consumption. All of which would shave administrative time off the top of the encounter, allowing the doctor to spend more meaningful minutes with you.

But it’s not just encounters with the GP that would be improved and would result in better outcomes. Any surgeon who had to have a go at you would be much more knowledgeable if provided by you with a downloadable daily record of your vital signs.

However. A downside to all this positivity is that one of the few things not currently measured by these fantastic machines is hearing, and, according to new research, that’s a major drawback, since hearing loss is emerging as a huge contributor to dementia.

According to The Lancet, “dementia is the greatest global challenge for health and social care in the 21st century: around 50 million people worldwide have dementia and this number is predicted to triple by 2050”.

As part of their commitment to finding out more about this dreary prospect, they have set up theLancet Commission on Dementia, which identifies nine potentially modifiable health and lifestylefactors from different phases of life that, if eliminated, might prevent dementia.

“Although therapies are currently not available to modifythe underlying disease process,” The Lancet acknowledges, “the Commission outlines pharmacological and social interventions that are able to help manage the manifestations of dementia.”

This isn’t more of the advice with which people in their 60s and 70s are bombarded with on a daily basis, that advice heavily weighted towards staying mentally and physically active, managing one’s weight, and not buying into thenotion that a couple or three glasses of alcohol before bed time will provide a great night’s sleep. The publication’s infographic, where it examines middle age and factors under the individual’s control which, unaddressed, can cause or contribute to dementia, has a huge bulge headed ‘hearing’. Not‘vision’, even though changes in eyesight are so prevalent, after 50, that cheap reading glasses are best sellers and opticians are more profitable when they operate in a community includes a lot of older people.

The key thing is that when someone’s eyesight disimproves with age, that revelation comes with neither shame or blame, each of which, in sharp contrast, attach in a horrible way to hearing loss. Hardly a day passes without my conscience grimly replaying inmy head an incident where, having already repeated an answer to a query from a close friend, I was asked to say it again, and snapped “are you deaf?” only to hear the quietly dignified response “yes”.

I’ll never get over it. Or understand the stupid impatience of my question, even though I know it is a widespread impatience.

Shaming of the hard-of-hearing may lead to denial on the part of the person whose hearing is failing, so that they tsk tsk to themselves and give out about an education system that allows children not to articulate clearly or project when speaking.

People look at ads for hearing tests in newspapers like this one and think about going, then put it off. That, according to The Lancet, may be the biggest mistake older people could make, because deafness is now, to quote the New York Times, “the largest modifiable risk factor for developing dementia, exceeding that of smoking, high blood pressure, lack of exercise, and socialisolation”.

Hearing difficulties in fact contribute to social isolation. Everybody knows an older person who sits in a group and smiles so vaguely that anybody who cares, realises that they’re not following the conversation at all. As that progresses, it becomes all too easy for the person who can’t hear to decide they will not put themselves to the trouble of going to places where other people gather. End result:Social isolation, loneliness, and depression. What you can’t hear, you can neither process nor remember and as a result, your brain, without the stimulus of new stuff, rots.

According to The Lancet, close to one in 10 cases of dementia could be prevented by treating hearing loss in the middle aged. That’s an awful lot of dementia prevented, relatively easily, by hearing aids.

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