Dementia continues to affect millions of people worldwide and is one of the most significant health issues of the 21st century. The question on everyone’s mind is…can we prevent dementia?

To better understand and manage dementia patient care, the audiologists at Victorian Hearing are currently completing the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) “Understanding Dementia” offered by the University of Tasmania. The course provides university-quality education about the latest in dementia research and care.

The 4 week course aims to provide knowledge designed to maximise quality of life across the trajectory of dementia for people with the condition, their families and carers.

Following successful completion of this course, a second 7-week course “Understanding Dementia” will be available to gain a deeper understanding the causes, symptoms and ways of responding to the needs of Dementia patients.

The research is quite clear in that we are an ageing world. We have more people living longer lives due to advancements medical knowledge and treatment, particularly in wealthy high-income nations.
Ageing however is a non-modifiable risk factors for dementia and we will therefore continue to see an increase in the prevalence of dementia worldwide. It is estimated by 2050 there will be up to 135 million people living with dementia!

Whilst the increase in prevalence of dementia is inevitable, how can we slow its incidence and therefore further prevent dementia?

The key is to address known modifiable risk factors. These include:

  • Obesity and diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Improve cardiovascular health
  • Increase physical activity
  • Education and training of the brain
  • Hearing loss

What is the relationship between hearing loss and dementia?

Research has identified a number of factors that may increase the risk of developing dementia Presbycusis, is one such factor.

Research suggests that people with mild symptoms of hearing loss may be twice as likely to develop dementia as those with healthy hearing and person’s with severe hearing loss may be five times more likely to develop dementia (Lin et al, 2019).

We know hearing loss places an additional load on the mental resources of a vulnerable brain as the person who has difficulty hearing works harder to decode and process sounds. Lin et al 2019, explain this additional load may mean that there are fewer resources and energy remaining for memory, understanding speech, and other cognitive functions, and this may lead to changes in the brain. They also suggest it is possible that the neurological process that leads to dementia is the same process that leads to age-related hearing loss.

Research has shown poor hearing brings with it a multitude of downstream consequences which in turn also increase the risk of developing dementia. The risks associated with untreated hearing loss and associated with an increase risk in dementia include:

  • Social isolation
  • Feelings of loneliness and depression
  • Loss of independence
  • Poor memory recall

We know that assistive listening devices and hearing aids reduce the additional load being placed on the brain to decode spoken messages. By reducing one’s listening effort and improving hearing clarity, we are allowing for more our energy and resources to be devoted to other higher order skills like memory. This in turn also helps people feel more connected, more comfortable to be socially involved and improving this feeling of isolation and loss of independence.

Frank R. Lin, MD PhD and Marilyn Albert, PhD, 2014, ‘Hearing Loss and Dementia – Who’s Listening?’, Aging Ment Health. 2019 Aug; 18(6): 671–673