The release of the 2020 report of The Lancet Commission published findings suggesting “untreated hearing loss in midlife as the largest modifiable risk factor” for dementia prevention, intervention and care.1 According to Denis Hampton, PhD, approximately 50 million people worldwide live with dementia. The Lancet Commission research team has projected this alarming number will increase to 152 million by 2050. These dementia cases affect individuals, their families and the economy, with global costs estimated at one trillion US dollars annually. Andrew Sommerlad, MBBS, PhD, principal research fellow, division of psychiatry at University College London and Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, noted that “supporting the physical health of people with dementia is important for cognition but also because they may struggle to manage other illnesses, which can lead to preventable and potentially harmful hospitalization.”1

Additional research data published at the University of Colorado supports The Lancet Commission findings. According to Anu Sharma, PhD, research and MRI studies are consistent with the hypothesis that “decreases in cognitive reserve caused by sensory deprivation taxes the brain and affects neurocognitive function.”2 Studies by Frank R. Lin, MD, PhD, otolaryngologist and investigative researcher at Johns Hopkins University, linked hearing loss with cognitive processing declines. His audiological evaluations and MRI studies conducted over a 10-year period indicate that “declines in hearing abilities may accelerate gray matter atrophy.”3 He added that seniors with hearing loss are significantly more likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease than those who retain their hearing.

Fortunately, The Lancet Commission research team has suggested that the proportion of seniors with dementia can be reduced with improvements in nutrition, healthcare and lifestyle changes. The 2020 findings recommend the following measures:1

  • Aim to maintain systolic blood pressure of 130mmHg or less in midlife from around 40 years of age.
  • Encourage use of hearing aids for hearing loss and reduce hearing loss protecting ears from high noise levels.
  • Reduce exposure to air pollution and second-hand tobacco smoke.
  • Take precautions to prevent head injury.
  • Prevent alcohol misuse and limit drinking to less than 21 units per week.
  • Stop smoking uptake and support individuals to stop smoking (which the authors stress is beneficial at any age).
  • Provide all children with primary and secondary education.
  • Lead an active life into mid-, and possibly later, life.
  • Reduce obesity and diabetes.

The research findings discussed in The Lancet Commission 2020 Report support the hypothesis investigated in the Sharma articles of 2020 and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine studies by Lin, published in 2011. The conclusions state that in the early stages of mild-to-moderate hearing loss, there are significant well-documented potential neurocognitive benefits that can be obtained from the consistent usage of fast processing hearing aids worn approximately 10 hours daily over a six-month period.2

Lisa Nathan Bellows is an audiologist practicing in Palm Desert and a member of Desert Doctors. She can be reached at (760) 340.6494.

References available upon request.

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