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Links to Hearing Loss and Dementia

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Posted on 18th March 2014.

18 March 2014

According to Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the RNID), hearing loss affects the lives of over 10 million individuals in the UK. One of the main causes of hearing impairment and indeed the largest contributing factor is age-related loss (presbyacusis). Our hearing is dependent on tiny hair cells (cilia) within the inner ear that are responsible for converting sound vibration into nerve impulses which are then sent to the brain for interpretation into ‘sound’. These delicate receptors are particularly susceptible to damage from excessive noise and also from the natural process of aging. As the body is unable to regenerate new hair cells, the resultant hearing loss is permanent.

Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline

Research increasingly points to a correlation between diminished auditory stimulation and cognitive decline, and even dementia. In cases of ‘unmanaged’ hearing loss, individuals will progressively withdraw from social interaction; this is often due to a symbiotic relationship between the acute embarrassment of mis-communication and the physical exertion of ‘trying’ to hear. Studies suggest that the ramifications of social exclusion, whilst not the direct cause of dementia, may be a contributing factor to any acceleration of this condition.

Signs of Age Related Hearing Loss

Irrespective of the prevalence of age-related hearing loss there is, sadly, a degree of self-consciousness and also denial, when it comes to accepting hearing loss. Natural damage to the inner ear hair cells may be detectible from 40 years of age, although the resultant impairment may be overlooked for many more years. By the age of 65 symptoms often manifest in:

• Difficulty hearing those around you

• Frequently asking people to repeat themselves

• Perception that people are ‘mumbling’ or speaking indistinctly

• Certain sounds seeming overly loud

• Problems hearing in noisy areas

• Problems telling apart certain sounds such as “s” or “th”

• More difficulty understanding people with higher-pitched voices

• Ringing in the ears

Managing Hearing Loss

As with any medical condition, the first step to hearing rehabilitation is to secure a proper diagnosis, namely through accessing the appropriate GP referral. Although noise induced and age related causes are the most common, it is important to rule out other (often temporary) factors, such as blockage in the outer ear canal, or possible infection. Depending on the cause of hearing loss, the management strategies can vary markedly.

The hearing test is an invaluable means of establishing the degree of impairment and determining whether the loss is attributable to neural / inner ear deterioration (sensorineural) or a conductive impairment (affecting the transmission of sound through the outer or middle ear). A hearing test may be accessed through the NHS, (as mentioned, through prior referral), or privately –often via centres with a visible high street presence. In most cases, there is no associated charge for the initial consultation.

The most prevailing management strategy for losses attributed to ‘age’ is the recommendation for some form of amplification, typically hearing aids. Whilst hearing aids will not restore ‘normal’ hearing they can be programmed to re-dress specific, diminished frequencies and restore the balance of loudness perception. A testament of free hearing provision from the NHS is the fact that it lambasts financial constraint as a justification for ‘untreated’ hearing loss. For anyone exhibiting a degree of hearing difficulty early assessment and resultant intervention will enable one to maintain their auditory quality of life.

Information supplied by Melanie Lewis, a trained hearing aid audiologist. She works for, a UK based vendor of deaf and hard of hearing assistive listening devices.

Sally Tomkotowicz