16 November 2019
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Now hear this

Dr Ross Walker
20 September 2019

It is surprising to realise that one in four people over the age of 65 have significant hearing loss for a variety of reasons relating to genetics, chronic exposure to loud noises, various toxins including some medical therapies and a number of other medical conditions such as tumours, viruses and a whole host of less common conditions. It is also quite disturbing to realise that one in two people over the age of 75 also suffer disabling hearing loss.

Over the past few years there have been a number of studies linking hearing loss to a variety of diseases, specifically dementia, diabetes, chronic kidney impairment, depression, anxiety and even a tendency to falling. There have been a number of mechanisms suggested for this association including reduced stimulation from being able to hear what is happening in your environment to reduced brain function and thus the link with the various forms of dementia. Many people with poor hearing feel socially isolated with the potential for them feeling depressed and anxious.

Hearing, clearly one of our vital sensors, also plays a role in stability and thus contributes to falling. It is also suggested that nerve impulses in the ear may be an indicator of nerve degeneration in other areas. Conditions such as diabetes and chronic kidney disease are associated with the accelerated blood vessel deterioration both at a macrovascular and microvascular level. Small vessel function is intricately associated with blood flow to nerves and thus the potential association with these conditions and hearing loss.

But, you may ask - so what? If you’ve lost hearing, there’s not much you can do about it other than wear hearing aids and does this really have any effect on these other conditions? A recent study from the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society followed 115,000 individuals older than 65 years old who suffered varying degrees of hearing loss. They were tracked for one year before the diagnosis of dementia, depression, anxiety or falls and then for three years after the diagnosis to determine whether wearing a hearing aid was of any value.

The study showed that those people who wear hearing aids had an 18% reduction in dementia diagnosis, an 11% reduction in the diagnosis of depression or anxiety and a 13% reduction in falls. Probably even more disturbing from this study was that only 12% of people with hearing loss actually use and wear hearing aids.

The message is very clear. If you are having difficulty hearing or your friends and relatives are complaining about your inability to engage in conversations because of this issue, this should be a strong stimulus for you to see an audiologist and consider using hearing aids. It may not only improve your hearing but may also help you either detect a significant associated disease such as diabetes or chronic kidney impairment but also help you avoid developing some other very serious medical condition.

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