Is hearing loss fuelling the rise of Alzheimer’s?

Evidence has been growing for many years that hearing loss has a detrimental impact on brain function. Experts suggest that even mild hearing loss could be responsible for doubling the risk of dementia, and severe hearing loss increasing the risk five-fold. 

Deafness makes it harder to concentrate and think, undermining a person's working memory. Studies also indicate that hearing loss actually changes brain structure, causing shrinkage in some regions most affected by Alzheimer's.

The belief is therefore that hearing loss causes people to miss information during conversations which isolates them. This isolation makes it harder to engage fully and this becomes a vicious circle, with gradual cognitive decline the result.

This was confirmed last year by French research carried out over a 25 year period to find out if effective use of hearing aids could slow this cognitive decline in older adults with hearing loss.

Reporting their research findings in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Helene Amieva, Lead Author of the study, states "This study clearly confirms that hearing loss is associated with cognitive decline in older adults" but she goes on to explain that "Using hearing aids attenuates cognitive decline in elders presenting with hearing loss." 

Use of hearing aids made a huge difference to the people with hearing loss in the study, reducing their rate of decline in cognitive skills to that more like those of people without any hearing loss.

The implication is clear. Poor rates of diagnosis and under-treatment of hearing loss in elderly adults need addressing.

The NHS estimate that while 6.7 million people in the UK could benefit from wearing hearing aids, only 1.4 million (about 20%) do so. And potential cuts to hearing aid provision could erode this percentage further.

Paul BreckellChief Executive of the charity, Action on Hearing Loss                 

"We are concerned that Clinical Commissioning Groups in England are considering cuts to hearing aid provision, with the North Staffordshire CCG the first to ration them since the inception of the NHS.

"As a charity we have successfully campaigned to stop other CCGs from following suit and we are calling on all CCGs to continue to provide hearing aids to all those who need them, particularly in light of the priority that NHS England has placed on hearing loss through its development of a Commissioning Framework for hearing loss services which will provide guidance for CCGs and is due to be published in April 2016.

"Hearing aids offer a lifeline to many, especially older people with hearing loss who would otherwise be sat at home alone unable to communicate with the outside world. They are a highly cost-effective intervention and are accepted to be the only viable treatment for people with adult-onset hearing loss."

Sue ArchboldChief Executive, The Ear Foundation charity                 

"We need to ensure that the public are aware of the potentially damaging consequences of hearing loss and we must ensure that the rationing of hearing aids in some areas of NHS stops now to ensure that we don't add to the number of dementia cases leading to heartache for families and additional costs to the NHS.

"We know that hearing loss is linked with dementia - and we know that today's hearing technologies are hugely beneficial in addressing hearing loss.

"We need to increase access to hearing aids early through the introduction of an adult hearing screening programme, to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to hear and possibly delay dementia."