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Dementia and age related hearing impairment

According to the Australian Network on Disability (AND), 1 in 6 Australians are affected by hearing loss, typically of the age-acquired type. It further reports that over 30,000 individuals are profoundly hard of hearing or deaf. Figures released by other Australian organisations estimate that 70 per cent of those over the age of 70, and 80 per cent of those over the age of 80 suffer from hearing loss. These statistics are backed up by research carried out in the USA and UK, where surveys reached a similar conclusion.

Age Acquired Hearing Loss

Also known as ‘age-related’, it is a type of hearing loss that is acquired naturally as the body matures. The human inner ear contains tiny receptors that closely resemble tiny hair cells when viewed under the microscope. These hair cells are fundamental to the hearing process, in that they collect sound vibrations and waves. From the hair cells the information is sent to the brain for processing. As the body matures, the number of hair cells gradationally falls, making it increasingly difficult to hear certain sounds. The body is unable to grow or mend these receptors, which is why there is no cure for age related hearing loss.

The Risk Of Unmanaged Hearing Loss

Beyond reduced quality of life, in the past three years research led by John Hopkins medical university found a correlation between the progression of dementia and unmanaged hearing loss. The study involving 639 people tested cognitive skills over the period of four years. The researchers found that participants with hearing loss at the beginning of the study were significantly more likely to develop dementia by the end.

When hearing loss is left unmanaged (by refraining from using common types of hearing aids), the individual has to spend tremendous energy and focus trying to keep up with the conversation. Spending this energy and focus over prolong period is physically and mentally exhausting. Some individuals intentionally and even unintentionally will disengage from conversation to dispense with the symptoms of exhaustion. It is believed that lack of social interaction that comes from residing in a muted and socially isolated world may leave individuals vulnerable to dementia. Researches further suspect that in certain cases, the strain of decoding sounds over the years may overwhelm the brain thereby increasing the risk of dementia. It is believed that correct management of hearing loss may delay the progression of dementia. No tangible evidence is present at this time whether managed hearing loss can prevent dementia.

Symptoms Of Age Acquired Hearing Loss

Most individuals, certainly those over the age of 60 will experience hearing loss. Factors that will determine the level of hearing loss whether mild, moderate or profound include exposure to noise over the years, history of smoking and overweight and even family history. Commons signs include:

Particularly in a noisy areas, it is hard to keep up with the conversation

In conversation, other individuals sound unclear even mumbling
Increasingly asking others to repeat their last word(s)
Difficulty hearing sound sources like the phone, TV etc.
Feeling exhausted after a conversation

Managing Hearing Loss, Delaying Dementia and Retaining Quality Of Life

It is true that age related hearing loss isn’t ‘curable’, but it is manageable. It means that with the help of digital aids, it is possible to retain suitable hearing levels, so long as these aids are in use. Any management program of hearing loss often starts by attending a hearing test at a local audiologist practice. The test will determine hearing loss and cause(s) for any shortfall. There are many solutions to manage hearing loss, most notable are amplified assistive listening device (ALD) such as headphones, phones, alarms and personal devices such as in the ear or around the ear hearing aids, to mention just a few of the types available nowadays.

If you have any concerns about your hearing, or the hearing of someone you care for, book a consultation with your local audiologist.

Written by audiologist Melanie Lewis (BSc Hons Audiology & Speech Pathology) from HearingDirect for the SpecialCare Central blog . Hard of hearing and deaf service provider (member of Hampshire’s Trading Standards).

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