Listen up! How hearing tests could help prevent dementia
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Our attention has recently been fixated on Covid-19 testing – but with research demonstrating a link between hearing loss and increased rates of depression, social isolation and cognitive decline, we should also be getting our hearing tested. We were all ears as expert audiologists explained the importance of early treatment for hearing loss.
The advice we receive about taking care of our hearing often goes in one ear and out the other, as we continue to use cotton buds and neglect to employ noise protection.
But with research indicating a correlation between hearing loss and cognitive decline, it’s time we pricked up our ears to the professional advice of audiologists, who say that regular hearing assessment and early treatment can help to protect us against hearing loss and cognitive decline.
“People go to the dentist for a check-up on their teeth and to the optometrist for their eyes, but there’s not necessarily the same attitude towards ears,” says Broadland Hearing Care managing director Dr Barry Jones.
However, Barry is working to reverse this trend, with his practice offering hearing loss assessments, microsuction wax removal and pure tone audiometry to safeguard against hearing loss.
“Audiologists examine the ears for blockages and check the functionality of the eardrum,” he says. “We’re always looking to find the cause of the hearing loss and any underlying lifestyle or health issues that need further investigation. Tinnitus could be just a wax blockage, for example.”
Pure tone audiometry can assess whether you have normal, mild, moderate, severe or profound hearing loss. “Pure tones don't exist in nature, but this test can find out what the patient can hear at each frequency,” Barry explains.
The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) estimates that more than 40pc of people in the UK over 50 years old have hearing loss, rising to more than 70pc of people over the age of 70. Hearing loss can increase a person’s risk of cognitive impairment, including dementia.
“White papers from universities and hospitals prove that untreated hearing loss is related to cognitive decline,” Barry says. “It can increase the speed of mental decline by approximately 30pc to 40pc.”
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Research is ongoing surrounding whether dementia is directly caused by hearing loss or is an indirect consequence of social isolation caused by hearing problems.
“If you've got poor hearing, your ability to socialise and interact with others is affected. And without the mental stimulation of talking with people, health declines.”
Barry has some simple advice to protect your hearing. “Do not put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear,” Barry says. “The ear will look after itself. We see an awful lot of damage from people poking things in their ears trying to get wax out. Leave your ears alone!”
There are other critical ways we must protect our ears, according to Derrick Soanes, audiologist at Sound Advice Hearing, a local family-run business with over 80 years of experience in hearing healthcare.
“Avoid loud noise, particularly on a regular basis,” Derrick says. “If you must be in a noisy environment for work, for example, protect your ears with good earplugs or custom-fitted ear defenders.
“Take care when listening to music. People often play music louder than it should be and this can cause damage to the inner ear, particularly when listening through earbuds or headphones.”
Swimmers and surfers should also protect their ears with swim moulds in order to avoid inflammation of the inner ear caused by an ingress of water. Without protection, we are more likely to experience hearing loss as we age.
“We can’t avoid getting older and hearing loss sometimes occurs as we do, so get your hearing tested straight away if you are experiencing problems,” Derrick advises. “Do not wait or put off dealing with hearing loss. It often gets worse over time and becomes more difficult to treat, which means the risk to overall wellbeing is greater.”
The good news is that a recent paper published in the Alzheimer's & Dementia journal found that the use of hearing aids is independently associated with a decreased risk of a dementia diagnosis.
“Hearing aids can be very effective and make a real difference,” Derrick says. “Good digital hearing aids stimulate the brain and help a person stay connected, helping them to join in socially and mentally. If they can enjoy getting together with family and friends, this reduces the risk of isolation, cognitive decline and dementia.”