Link Between Hearing Loss, Cognitive Decline And Dementia

4 August 2020

Local and international researches showed that there is a link between hearing loss, cognitive decline and dementia.

Local elderly who lose hearing are 2.3 times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment or dementia, according to a research collaborated by National University of Singapore (NUS) and Ng Teng Fong General Hospital. 

Cognitive ability impacted because of delayed treatment

Most of the people are not aware of hearing deterioration. Usually by the time they seek treatment, hearing loss has existed for 7 or even more than 10 years and is significantly affecting daily conversation and activities.

Mr Tan Boon Hai, principal audiologist of The Hearing Specialist Group said: At this time, cognitive ability has been negatively affected to an extent such that chances of recovery is minimal or irreversible anymore. The ideal way to prevent this from happening is to treat hearing loss as early as possible. 

Long-term untreated hearing impairment can result in social isolation and psychological problems especially in elderly. According to Mr Tan, frustration often arouses among families or friends if the hearing-impaired keep asking for repetition, which eventually cause them refuse to talk with the elderly. A common, simple task like answering phone calls will also become difficult for them. As the days goes by, their social circles become smaller. At this moment, even if they are fitted with hearing aids, the outcome will not be as good as early fitting.  

As people ages, hearing check-up becomes equally important like eyes check-up. Consult a doctor/ specialist once notice the hearing changes. Often, we see patients with untreated or improper treatment of hearing loss who face great difficulty communicating with people, end up withdrawing themselves from social circle, isolated in own house.

Cases where then hearing-impaired old folks lose contact with their long-distance families are pretty common, as they cannot hear phone calls, refused to hang out with friends because they cannot join in the conversation, 

Maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle can reduce the possibility of dementia, even when you age. ‘But hearing loss hinders you from communicating with others, how to maintain an active lifestyle?’ said Mr Tan. ‘Some of our patients used to be an outgoing person, but age-related hearing loss change their social behaviour, they start to avoid social gathering, answer phone calls and prefer to stay at home, resulting in dementia.  

Brain only works when there is external stimulation. Long term hearing loss prevents sounds from going up to the brain, eventually reduces its efficiency and affects cognition, speeding up formation of dementia. 

He stressed the importance of doing a regular hearing check. ‘Diagnosing hearing loss is always less complicated than diagnosing dementia. For those above 60-year-old, 60% of them start to develop hearing deterioration. While those whose working environment is noisy, hearing might be affected as well. According to research, risk of getting dementia is doubled, tripled or even 5 times higher if the hearing is at mild, moderate and severe level respectively. 

Hearing check-up once above 50 years’ old

Like body check-up, hearing check-up should not be neglected. Always include hearing screening in health screening package once above 50 years old. For those who work in high noise environment like production line, printing line or airport should receive hearing test earlier as hearing more prone to damage due to loud sound exposure. 

Other than aging and noise exposure, hearing loss can also cause by middle ear infection, impacted earwax and effect of medical treatment. If any suspicion of hearing problem aroused, seek a qualified audiologist for hearing test to find out the cause and types of hearing problem. 

Modern digital hearing aids can help improve hearing as well as quality of life, allowing hearing-impaired to hear sounds that they miss for a long period of time: bell’s ringing of bike, birds chirping in early morning and so on.

Mr Tan pointed out that, hearing aids have been proven to be an effective way to solve hearing and communication problems. With the advancements of hearing technology, the outcome of hearing aid fitting has improved significantly compared to years ago. 

Technology eases hearing aid usage, especially in elderly. ‘The need to change batteries once every 1 to 2 weeks was a common excuse to not using hearing aids. With the introduction of rechargeable hearing aids in recent years, patients do not need to buy or change batteries anymore, indirectly encourage users to use more. When they use more, they hear better and outcome improved significantly’, Mr Tan explained. 

Upon completing hearing test, Mr Tan will discuss with patients the individualised hearing solution according to their needs and hearing condition. Through Bluetooth technology, modern hearing aids can connect to TV, iPad and smartphones, allowing users to hear clearly and enjoy their favourite shows, make calls to the loved ones again. At the same time, keep them in touch with family members and friends without having issue with communication anymore. 

Mr Tan will appear in ‘Health Fiesta 2018’ to share more about hearing loss and dementia.

(translation of interview extract with Mr Tan Boon Hai, Principal Audiologist, The Hearing Specialist Group by Lianhe Zaobao LOHAS weekly newpaper team in October 2018)