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Untreated Hearing Loss Can Lead to Dementia

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Hearing loss affects over 1.23 billion people globally. It has been observed that hearing impairment negatively impacts on cognition. Some studies have demonstrated a faster rate of decline in cognition, and increased risk of incident all-cause dementia.

There have been several studies carried out in recent years to ascertain and confirm the link between untreated hearing loss and dementia. We all know there is a certain amount of cognitive decline as we get older. Researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School and King’s College London looked at thousands of over-50s and found that for those with hearing loss, wearing hearing aids help maintain good cognitive function and protect against long-term brain decline.

The findings suggest that untreated hearing loss can lead to an increased risk of certain types of dementia. It makes sense when you think about it that lack of stimulation and use will lead to decline.

Social isolation and lack of interaction occurs due to untreated hearing loss and can encourage negative feelings of loneliness. And yet, regular social interaction and conversation is shown to have significant benefits to mental health and well-being. 

The negative effects of untreated hearing loss can be quite profound and lead to more psychological issues like anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and reclusiveness. We know that there is little social stigma associated with wearing hearing aids and realise the main barrier is personal stigma. Even though we will accept our hair thinning or greying, our eyesight becoming dimmer, our teeth needing fixing, we balk at wearing hearing aids.

Research and study after study confirm unequivocally that untreated hearing loss can be detrimental to our well-being and more importantly contribute to poorer cognitive ability.

Our recommendation is for all over 50s to have their hearing regularly checked but more importantly, to react if hearing loss is discovered so good brain function can be maintained with better hearing and cognitive stimulation. Studies have shown that the use of hearing aids reduce the risk of cognitive decline and of developing dementia.

A recent and large French study headed by Professor Helene Amieva, which followed nearly 3,800 people for a 25-year period, found that over 50s and elderly people who say that they have a hearing loss but do not wear hearing aids are at a much higher risk of dementia. The study also found that those who used hearing aids eliminated the increased risk of dementia. For people using hearing aids, the risk was no higher compared to people reporting no hearing loss.

Earlier results from the same French study found that the use of hearing aids also almost eliminated the risk of cognitive decline. Interestingly the study found for people using hearing aids, there was no higher risk compared to people reporting no hearing loss.

In our experience simply prescribing and fitting hearing aids is not the answer. Regular follow ups are necessary to measure wear time through data-logging built into the instruments. It is often found that while hearing aids are provided, they are not always worn. The reasons for this are many, from not liking the sound or stigma and resentment to wearing hearing aids.

We have often contemplated how to get around this reluctance and it seems the desire of the wearer is to have something invisible. This is not always feasible as the amount of hearing loss may require more powerful and therefore larger amplifiers. 

However, there is one solution for the hearing impaired. That is a permanently worn hearing device which delivers amplification and cognitive stimulation twenty-four hours a day. The Lyric, as it is called, is a tiny hearing aid built within medical grade foam. It is implanted deep in the outer ear canal just 4mm from the ear drum. As it is in place for two to three months at a time before the need to replace, it is constantly stimulating the neural pathways even when not in conversation.

The Lyric device comes in many sizes from extra small to extra large and can cover a dynamic range of hearing from mild to moderately severe hearing loss. It is a unique solution but has to be managed carefully and sized correctly. The Lyric is not suitable for everyone as occasionally the ear may reject having something permanently in the ear. This is usually down to moisture issues. Where we have seen a meaningful benefit is with early onset dementia patients who would generally forget to wear their hearing aids.

The Lyric device can be changed on a regular scheduled basis and there is no daily insertion or removal and no batteries to change. It really has proved a very useful answer to the age-old conundrum of continual wearing of hearing devices.

South East Hearing Care Centres have three full time Lyric clinics in Sussex and would welcome the opportunity to assess the need and suitability of candidates for the Lyric device.

Helen Bradfield did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She has an ongoing interest in mental health and well-being.

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