How hearing loss is linked to dementia

While the doctor is talking, the mature woman places her hand to her ear to let her know that she can't hear very well.
Studies have shown that hearing loss is associated with cognitive decline, including dementia. (Getty Images)

Hearing loss is a common issue many people go through with age, with an estimated 12 million UK adults having some type of hearing loss. However, many may not realise that this can put them at higher risk of developing dementia.

A 2023 study reviewing risk factors for dementia suggested that people who experience midlife hearing loss may be up to five times more likely to have dementia compared to those without hearing loss.

This link is something that The Kardashians star Kris Jenner is all too aware of. In a recent trailer for a forthcoming new episode of the reality series, Jenner is seen reading up on dementia and declaring it "could be in [her] future" if left untreated.

The trailer also shows Jenner seeing her doctor to get a hearing test to address her fears.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 06: Kris Jenner attends The 2024 Met Gala Celebrating
The Kardashians star Kris Jenner is seen taking a hearing test to assuage her fears about dementia in the latest trailer of the series. (Getty Images)

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, hearing problems that develop during mid-life (between 45 to 65 years of age) may be an early symptom of dementia. The charity emphasises the importance of getting your hearing tested to reduce the risk of developing the condition.

Hearing loss refers to a partial or complete decrease in a person’s ability to hear sounds. It can affect one or both ears and can range from mild to profound. There are also a number of different types of hearing loss that can occur at any age and for various reasons.

Amanda Philpott, hearing health expert and former NHS chief executive, explains to Yahoo UK how hearing problems can affect our lives.

"Hearing loss can have a significant impact on a person's quality of life, affecting their ability to communicate, socialise, and perform daily tasks. Early intervention can often improve outcomes and help prevent further deterioration of hearing."

She adds that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that, in addition to the 430 million adults globally who already experience a disabling level of hearing loss, around 1.1 billion more young people are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss.

"Pretty much all of us could do with protecting our hearing health a little bit more," she says.

Watch: Bruce Willis is 'doing OK' amid his battle with dementia

Philpott points to studies that have shown a correlation between untreated hearing loss and cognitive decline, including an increased risk of developing dementia.

However, scientists are not sure of the exact nature of the link, and it is the subject of ongoing research.

Hearing loss can impact our cognitive abilities in the following ways:

Social isolation: Hearing loss can lead to social isolation and reduced engagement in social activities. Isolation and loneliness are known risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia.

Cognitive load: When individuals have even mild hearing loss, it requires more cognitive effort to understand speech and follow conversations. This increased cognitive load may divert resources from other cognitive tasks, potentially contributing to cognitive decline over time.

Brain changes: Some studies have also suggested that untreated hearing loss might lead to changes in the brain, which could be linked to cognitive impairment and the onset of dementia.

Philpott adds: "It’s important to remember that while many studies have shown an association between hearing loss and cognitive decline, research is ongoing. Not all individuals with hearing loss develop dementia (and vice versa)."

Experts recommend that people must pay closer attention to their hearing and take steps to minimise hearing loss.

Philpott’s advice includes:

Check your hearing regularly

"It’s important for adults of all ages to have their hearing regularly checked. It’s easy to book a hearing test with a high street audiologist, or use an app like eargym to check your hearing in just a few seconds using your phone. You can’t take steps to improve and protect your hearing if you don’t understand your hearing health first. We should all be testing our hearing regularly, just like we test eyesight and blood pressure."

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

"Maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes staying regularly engaged in social activity, seeking cognitive stimulation and taking care of our cardiovascular health can play a role in reducing the risk of both hearing loss and the associated cognitive decline."

Hearing training

"Whilst the ear itself cannot be directly improved, the brain can learn and respond to specific auditory stimuli. The sensorineural aspects of our hearing (i.e. the parts of the ear that take in sound) can only be improved by physical intervention such as hearing aids or cochlear implants.

"But our hearing isn't just sensorineural - it's also about how we process sound and apply meaning to it. The right hearing training exercises - designed to help you practise skills like locating where sounds are coming from, understanding speech in noisy places and telling different sounds apart - can work with the brain to help you gain more from what you hear, improving listening skills and speech comprehension.

"Regular practice for just a few minutes a day through an app like eargym can help you get the most out of hearing training."

Getting a hearing test to ensure your hearing is in good shape is recommended. (Getty Images)
Getting a hearing test to ensure your hearing is in good shape is recommended. (Getty Images)

Wear noise protection

"It’s crucial to protect your ears from loud noises. Use earplugs or ear defenders when exposed to loud environments, such as concerts or construction sites, and don’t listen to loud music in headphones in already-noisy environments for prolonged periods of time."

Seek the appropriate medical intervention if required

"If hearing loss is detected and is severe enough to require intervention, do take advantage of the support available to you. Hearing aids, cochlear implants and assistive listening devices can be incredibly powerful. There’s a huge amount of stigma against wearing hearing aids: our research at eargym has found that 1 in 3 adults would feel apprehensive about wearing hearing aids in public. This is something we need to overcome if we’re to adequately look after our hearing and cognitive health."

Read more about mental health: