Auditory issues could be an early sign of future risk of memory and thinking problems but more research is required to unpick the link, researchers say
People who experience hearing loss could be at greater risk of memory and thinking problems later in life than those without auditory issues, research suggests.
The study focused on people who were at risk of Alzheimer’s disease, revealing that those who were diagnosed with hearing loss had a higher risk of “mild cognitive impairment” four years later.
“It’s really not mild,” said Clive Ballard, professor of age-related disease at the University of Exeter. “They are in the lowest 5% of cognitive performance and about 50% of those individuals will go on to develop dementia.”
Presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London, researchers from the US looked at the memory and thinking skills of 783 cognitively healthy participants in late middle age, more than two-thirds of whom had at least one parent who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
The team carried out a range of cognitive tests on the participants over a four-year period, aimed at probing memory and mental processing, revealing that those who had hearing loss at the start of the study were more than twice as likely to be found to have mild cognitive impairment four years later than those with no auditory problems, once a variety of other risk factors were taken into account.
Taylor Fields, a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin who led the research, said that the findings suggest hearing loss could be an early warning sign that an individual might be at greater risk of future cognitive impairment – but added more research was necessary to unpick the link.
“There is something here and it should be looked into,” she said.
It is not the first study to suggest a link between hearing loss and cognitive troubles – previous research has found that the more severe hearing loss is, the greater the risk of dementia.
But it is not yet clear whether hearing loss is the result of changes linked to dementia, or whether hearing loss itself could contribute to cognitive decline. As a result, it is unclear whether treating hearing loss could mitigate against increased risk.
“Potentially it is something you can do something about, which I think makes it really important to understand better,” said Ballard.