Study Finds Hearing Loss Is a Risk Factor for Dementia

Last update on Sep, 15, 2020

A new report from The Lancet Commission makes one of the strongest cases yet for the treatment of hearing loss. University College London (UCL) researchers concluded that untreated hearing loss in midlife is the largest modifiable risk factor for developing dementia, says an article in The Hearing Review.

A total of 12 modifiable risk factors with strong evidence for a causal link to dementia are included in the report. The top three risk factors are: untreated hearing loss in midlife (accounting for 8% of all dementia cases), less education early in life (7%) and smoking later in life (5%).

Participating in the study were 28 leading dementia experts from around the world, including faculties of UCL’s Brain Sciences and Population Health Sciences, along with colleagues from several other countries.

In addition to presenting their findings, the report’s authors outlined nine recommendations for policymakers and individuals, among them, encouraging the use of hearing aids for hearing loss and reducing the risk of hearing loss by protecting the ears from high noise levels.

Growing body of research links hearing loss and dementia

The UCL research adds to the findings of previous studies. For example, in a Johns Hopkins study, Frank R. Lin, MD, PhD, and Marilyn Albert, PhD, concluded that hearing loss is a factor in an estimated 36% of U.S. dementia cases. In another study, Dr. Lin concluded that mild hearing loss doubled an adult’s dementia risk, moderate hearing loss tripled the dementia risk, and severe hearing loss increased the dementia risk fivefold.

Even mild hearing loss of 15 decibels (roughly equivalent to the volume of a whisper or rustling leaves) increased an older adult’s risk of “clinically meaningful” cognitive decline, according to researchers at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

While cognitive decline doesn’t necessarily equate to dementia, it still needs to be taken seriously. The Alzheimer’s Association contends that even mild cognitive decline increases a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other type of dementia.

Incentivizing hearing loss treatment

Dementia is clearly a growing health concern. Worldwide about 50 million people have some type of dementia; this number is expected to increase to 152 million by 2050. In the U.S. approximately 10% of people age 65 or older have dementia, according to Kenneth Langa, an expert in the demography of aging and a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan.

Besides its terrible personal toll, dementia comes with an enormous economic burden. In 2019 the direct costs to American society of caring for those with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias totaled an estimated $290 billion, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Much of this expense is borne by Medicare, Medicaid and health insurance companies.

The good news: About 40% of dementia cases involve modifiable risk factors, according to The Lancet Commission report — and the leading one is hearing loss. Based on an overwhelming body of research, health insurers should be incentivizing their members, particularly those enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans, to seek treatment for their hearing loss. A hearing benefit can provide this motivation by significantly reducing the cost of hearing aids and related professional services.

An elderly couple talking with an Amplifon hearing specialist
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