Challenges with Hearing Speech in Noise - an Early Sign of Dementia?

Challenges with Hearing Speech in Noise – an Early Sign of Dementia?

In Communication, Dementia & Alzheimer's, Hearing Health, Hearing Loss, Research by Jack Felix, ACA, BC, HISLeave a Comment

Jack Felix, ACA, BC, HIS

Do you struggle to hear in crowded restaurants or bars? It’s common for anyone to struggle to hear in noisy environments but if you are finding that this issue is becoming a persistent issue it could signal a larger issue. Hearing loss affects approximately 466 million people worldwide and the World Health Organization (WHO) projects that this number is set to double by 2050. 

Hearing loss is commonly undertreated and the health effects of ignoring the condition, grossly underestimated. Hearing helps us to connect to the people in our life and stay connected to the activities which keep us engaged and vibrant. If ignored it can progress into chronic depression, anxiety, social isolation, and a greater risk of falls, leading to hospitalization and cognitive decline, leading to dementia. Now researchers are finding that challenges with hearing in noise due to early hearing loss may indicate a greater risk of dementia later in life.

The Risk of Dementia for the Hearing Impaired

Dementia is a grouping of neurodegenerative diseases which affect one or more cognitive functions, such as memory, attention, perception language problem solving or decision making. It currently has no cure, though there are some medications available which can delay the inevitable cognitive decline. Because of the terminal nature of dementia, experts focus on the risk factors for dementia to minimize risk. While some factors which increase risk such as age and genetic history are unmodifiable, many factors are. In 2020 a landmark report by the Lancet Commission, estimated that people with unaddressed midlife hearing loss are up to five times more likely to be affected by dementia than those without hearing loss.

Modifiable Risks

WHO reports that currently more than 55 million people live with dementia worldwide, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year. The 2020 Lancet Report builds on a previous report from 2017 where they highlighted modifiable risks to reduce dementias wide reaching effects on society as a whole. Modifiable risk factors for dementia indicate factors that may be in our power to change and include: 

  • Early life education
  • Hearing loss
  • Smoking
  • Depression
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Social isolation
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Higher alcohol consumption (more than 21 units a week)
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Exposure to air pollution

Issues Hearing in Noise

While we collect sound with our ears, hearing occurs in the brain. Issues with hearing in noise are often due to the inability to receive signals to the brain. A study conducted at the University of Oxford investigated what is known as the ‘cocktail party problem’ and published the results in the journal, Alzheimer’s & Dementia. The July 2021 study titled transparently: Speech-in-noise hearing impairment is associated with an increased risk of incident dementia in 82,039 UK Biobank participants , attempted to draw a strong conclusion between audio deprivation caused by hearing loss in noise.

Understanding the Cocktail Party Problem

To better understand this the researchers recreated a scenario similar to a cocktail party, with multiple conversations combined with music and the sound of glasses clinking all at once. This is commonly a difficult environment for many with hearing loss to communicate within. It is particularly difficult to focus on a single speaker amongst all the other sounds. From a cohort of over 82,000 people aged 60 years or older, the researchers measured a individual’s ability to identify spoken numbers against a background of white noise. The study then grouped participants into three groups based on their performance. They found that the volunteers who were poorly or insufficiently able to distinguish spoken numbers from a background of white noise had a significantly higher risk of developing dementia with in an 11-year span after the initial test.

Straining to Make Sense of Hearing Loss

While you may feel that you can hear people when they speak often the word don’t make sense. This is due to the loss of certain tones or pitches. Even in the earliest stages of hearing loss this can make it difficult to follow conversations and respond accordingly. This makes social interaction frustrating and exhausting as you struggle to make sense of what people are saying with limited information and can take a toll on cognitive test. The good news is that by treating hearing loss you won’t have to strain to hear. If you are concerned about a potential hearing loss, schedule an hearing exam with us today.

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