More than one-third of adults over 65 experience some form of hearing difficulty which can affect mental function, social life and mood. Dementia Australia lists hearing loss along with obesity, smoking and excessive alcohol use, as a significant risk factor for dementia.
In fact, 9 per cent of dementias are associated with hearing loss.
And there is evidence to show that older adults with hearing loss score more poorly on cognitive tests as they age, compared to their peers. One US study followed older citizens for six years and found hearing loss was associated with accelerated cognitive decline.
A 20-year study, again in the US, tested the hearing of 253 older adults regularly. It showed seniors with moderate and severe hearing loss experienced a decline in memory and general mental functioning compared to their peers. There are a few possible reasons for this link between hearing loss and mental decline.
Firstly is the “deprivation hypothesis”. With poorer hearing you miss out on cognitive stimulation.
Secondly, people with hearing loss tend to spend less time engaged in leisure pursuits and in socialising. They can have depressed moods and become socially isolated. Depression itself is a risk factor for dementia.
However there is some good news too. Studies are finding older people with a hearing loss who wear hearing aids do not experience the cognitive decline mentioned above. Instead, they have richer social lives, better communication and a good quality of life compared to those who do not wear hearing aids.
A Turkish study of study of 34 older adults with hearing impairments measured them for mood and depression as well as mental functioning. The participants were given hearing aids and after three months showed significant improvement in all three measures.
Looking over a longer time span, 25 years, a US study of 3777 participants aged 65 and over supports the value of hearing aids. They found that people with hearing loss who did not wear hearing aids had a 21 per cent higher risk of developing dementia than those who choose to wear hearing aids. What’s more, the people who wore hearing aids had no more risk than their hearing peers.
A second reason to take any hearing loss in yourself or a family member seriously is its link to depression. The American Academy of Audiology reported a US study of 2300 hearing impaired adults aged over 50 that found those without hearing aids had higher levels of depression and anxiety than their peers who wore hearing aids
Communication breakdowns were common. Those not wearing hearing aids were more likely to report that “other people get angry at me for no reason”.
Not wearing hearing aids was also associated with taking part in fewer social activities. On the other hand, people wearing hearing aids reported improved communication with family.
This same study asked people why they chose not to wear hearing aids. They gave a few reasons. Some said their hearing was not bad enough to merit aids. Others baulked at the cost of aids and some said, “it would make me feel old”.
This is a situation where the inconvenience and short-term embarrassment of wearing a hearing aid has to be weighed against the long-term health risks of not wearing a hearing aid. Like exercise or a good diet, wearing a hearing aid is a long-term investment.
I would encourage readers to protect their hearing and be alert to any hearing loss in loved ones. If you or a family member has difficulty hearing, get a hearing check.
Poor hearing can put you and those you care about at risk of social isolation, depression and dementia. It’s not an inconvenience. It’s a major health issue.
Kendall Morton is director of Home Care Assistance Sunshine Coast to Wide Bay. Call 5491 6888 or email email@example.com