Another study ties dementia to hearing loss

Photo credit: Kindel Media

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Researcher Frank Lin, MD PhD, may have been the first to describe an association between hearing loss and dementia in older people in 2011 and he has continued his research on this topic. One of the studies he and others are doing is following older people with hearing loss to see if providing them with hearing aids reduces or delays the onset of dementia.

In a Research Letter in the January 10, 2023, issue of JAMA, Dr. Lin and colleagues provide further support for this idea. The JAMA article is behind a paywall–I’m a subscriber so I read the article both online and in print–but this piece in MedPage Today is an accurate summary of the article.

Using data collected from the National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS) on 2413 older adults, the researchers found both that hearing loss was associated with dementia in older people, and that those who used hearing aids were less likely to have dementia.

MedPage Today noted that:

The weighted prevalence of dementia was 10.27% overall. Dementia prevalence rose as severity of hearing loss increased: for normal hearing, it was 6.19%; for mild hearing loss, it was 8.93%; and for moderate-to-severe hearing loss, it was 16.52%.

Prevalence of dementia among the participants with moderate/severe hearing loss was 61% higher than prevalence among participants who had normal hearing. Perhaps more importantly, the press release from Johns Hopkins University pointed out that “hearing aid use was associated with a 32 percent lower prevalence of dementia in the 853 participants who had moderate/severe hearing loss.”

Prevalence has a specific meaning in epidemiology: the number of people in a population who have a specific condition at a specific time. The results of this study are consistent with the results of a recent meta-analysis done by a research group in Singapore. However, the Hopkins study has certain limitations. For instance, it used a cross-sectional design which only examines a population at one point in time, rather than following people over time. Another limitation is that nursing home residents were excluded due to a lack of data on their cognitive status.

My two takeaways from the new report: First, if an older person thinks he or she has difficulty hearing, or if you are the adult child of such an individual, the older person should see an audiologist or ENT, have an audiogram, and get hearing aids. Purchasing newer over-the-counter hearing aids, now being advertised on television, is a lower-cost option.

And second, even if an older person already has hearing loss, he or she should try to protect whatever hearing remains by avoiding loud noise. In addition to protecting hearing, this may reduce the risk of conditions like dementia. That’s sound advice for us all.

Because if it sounds loud, it’s too loud, and our hearing is at risk.

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