People who find it difficult to hear a conversation in a noisy environment are twice as likely to go on to develop dementia later in life, the findings of a new study reveal.
Health data from more than 82,000 participants over the age of 60 were studied by experts from the University of Oxford who were looking for dementia risk factors.
They found that difficulty hearing spoken conversations, particularly in a noisy environment, is associated with up to 91 per cent increased risk of dementia.
Hearing impairment affects around 1.5 billion people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, with increasing evidence it could be a dementia risk.
This prompted the Oxford team to delve into the UK Biobank dataset, where they found that struggling to follow conversations in a noisy environment was a risk factor of dementia that ‘could be treated’ and potentially hold off the condition.
Experts say anyone with concerns about their hearing should contact their GP.
The study authors didn’t say why the risk of dementia increased among those with difficulties hearing in a noisy environment, but ruled out isolation as a cause.
People who find it difficult to hear a conversation in a noisy environment are twice as likely to go on to develop dementia later in life, the findings of a new study reveal
WHAT IS SPEECH-IN-NOISE HEARING LOSS?
The most common form of hearing loss is a difficulty in understanding speech in a noisy environment.
It has been known as hidden hearing loss, or just speech-in-noise difficulty.
It can be difficult to diagnose as standard hearing tests can’t measure this type of hearing loss and there is no approved treatment.
The most common cause of this type of hearing loss are noise exposure and ageing.
Over time they damage the cochlea and this can be measured with standard tests, but before this damage gets bad, there are subtle changes in hearing.
This includes difficulties picking out speech when there is a lot of background noise.
It can lead to sufferers feeling isolated in social situations or even with difficulty hearing announcements in an airport or train station.
There is also evidence this is both a symptom and risk factor in older adults for dementia.
As people get older hearing becomes more difficult, and a major component of this is difficulty hearing speech in a loud environment.
This can have an impact on their day-to-day functioning, including struggling to hear announcements or becoming isolated due to difficulties in social situations.
The problem has also been shown to be a symptom of dementia among some people who struggle with the devastating condition.
However, until now it was unclear whether difficulty hearing speech-in-noise was associated with developing dementia, as well as being a symptom.
This has now been robustly investigated in a new study led by the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Population Health (NDPH).
At the beginning of the study, participants were asked to identify spoken numbers against a background of white noise.
Based on this test they were grouped by the researchers into normal, insufficient and poor speech-in-noise hearing.
Over 11 years of follow-up, 1,285 participants were identified as developing dementia based on hospital inpatient and death register records.
Insufficient and poor speech-in-noise hearing were associated with a 61 per cent and 91 per cent increased risk of developing dementia.
This is when compared to normal speech-in-noise hearing.
Dr Thomas Littlejohns, senior author, said: ‘Dementia affects millions of individuals worldwide, with the number of cases projected to treble in the next few decades.
‘However, there is growing evidence that developing dementia is not inevitable and that the risk could be reduced by treating pre-existing conditions.
‘Whilst preliminary, these results suggest speech-in-noise hearing impairment could represent a promising target for dementia prevention.’
Dr Jonathan Stevenson, study lead author, said difficulty hearing speech in background noise is one of the most common problems for people with age-related hearing impairment.
Dr Katy Stubbs from Alzheimer’s Research UK, said that while most people think of memory problems when they hear the word dementia, this isn’t the only symptom.
Health data from more than 82,000 participants over the age of 60 were studied by experts from the University of Oxford who were looking for dementia risk factors
‘Many people with dementia will experience difficultly following speech in a noisy environment – a symptom sometimes called the ‘cocktail party problem,’ she said.
‘This study suggests that these hearing changes may not just be a symptom of dementia, but a risk factor that could potentially be treated.’
‘Large studies like the UK Biobank are powerful tools for identifying genetic, health and lifestyle factors linked to conditions like dementia,’ she explained.
‘But it is always difficult to tease apart cause and effect in this type of research,’ adding that ‘anyone who has concerns about their hearing should speak to their GP.’
The findings have been published in in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.
WHAT IS DEMENTIA? THE KILLER DISEASE THAT ROBS SUFFERERS OF THEIR MEMORIES
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of neurological disorders
A GLOBAL CONCERN
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders (those affecting the brain) which impact memory, thinking and behaviour.
There are many different types of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.
Some people may have a combination of types of dementia.
Regardless of which type is diagnosed, each person will experience their dementia in their own unique way.
Dementia is a global concern but it is most often seen in wealthier countries, where people are likely to live into very old age.
HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE AFFECTED?
The Alzheimer’s Society reports there are more than 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK today, of which more than 500,000 have Alzheimer’s.
It is estimated that the number of people living with dementia in the UK by 2025 will rise to over 1 million.
In the US, it’s estimated there are 5.5 million Alzheimer’s sufferers. A similar percentage rise is expected in the coming years.
As a person’s age increases, so does the risk of them developing dementia.
Rates of diagnosis are improving but many people with dementia are thought to still be undiagnosed.
IS THERE A CURE?
Currently there is no cure for dementia.
But new drugs can slow down its progression and the earlier it is spotted the more effective treatments are.
Source: Alzheimer’s Society