Hearing loss is a big and growing problem: a whopping 12 million people in the UK are affected by hearing loss, yet most of us don’t test or train our hearing regularly.
And it’s not just your ability to hear that’ll thank you for taking care of your hearing – it can also slow the cognitive decline associated with dementia.
Why? Hearing loss is one of the biggest modifiable risk factors when it comes to developing dementia.
According to former NHS CEO and hearing expert Amanda Philpott, there’s not enough awareness surrounding the little-known link between hearing and Alzheimer’s.
Several studies have shown a correlation between untreated hearing loss and cognitive decline, including an increased risk of developing dementia – but the exact nature of the connection is the subject of ongoing research.
So what are Philpott’s thoughts? She has three theories as to why there’s a link.
According to Philpott, what we do know is that hearing loss can lead to social isolation and reduced engagement in social activities – both isolation and loneliness are known risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia.
When individuals have even mild hearing loss, it requires more cognitive effort to understand speech and follow conversations, Philpott explains.
“This increased cognitive load may divert resources from other cognitive tasks, potentially contributing to cognitive decline over time.”
Some studies have also suggested that untreated hearing loss might lead to changes in the brain, which could be linked to cognitive impairment and the onset of dementia.
Philpott adds: “It’s important to remember that while many studies have shown an association between hearing loss and cognitive decline, research is ongoing. Not all individuals with hearing loss develop dementia (and vice versa).”
What can we do to take better care of our hearing?
Test your hearing regularly
It’s important for adults of all ages to have their hearing regularly tested. It’s easy to book a hearing test with a high street audiologist. You can’t take steps to improve and protect your hearing if you don’t understand your hearing health first. We should all be testing our hearing regularly, just like we test eyesight and blood pressure.
Whilst the ear itself cannot be directly improved, the brain can learn and respond to specific auditory stimuli. The sensorineural aspects of our hearing (i.e. the parts of the ear that take in sound) can only be improved by physical intervention such as hearing aids or cochlear implants.
But our hearing isn’t just sensorineural – it’s also about how we process sound and apply meaning to it.
The right hearing training exercises – designed to help you practice skills like locating where sounds are coming from, understanding speech in noisy places and remembering and telling different sounds apart – can work with the brain to help you gain the most from what you hear, improving listening skills and speech comprehension. Regular practice for just a few minutes a day through an app like eargym can help you get the most out of hearing training.
Wear noise protection
It’s crucial to protect your ears from loud noises. Use earplugs or ear defenders when exposed to loud environments, such as concerts or construction sites, and don’t listen to loud music in headphones in already-noisy environments for prolonged periods of time – HuffPost UK’s lifestyle editor Dayna is a massive fan of Loops.
Seek the appropriate medical intervention if required
If hearing loss is detected and is severe enough to require intervention, do take advantage of the support available to you. Hearing aids, cochlear implants and assistive listening devices can be incredibly powerful. There’s a huge amount of stigma against wearing hearing aids in the UK, which we need to overcome if we’re to adequately look after our hearing and cognitive health.