Trouble hearing speech in noisy environments ‘a risk factor for dementia’

Difficulty hearing spoken conversations is associated with up to 91% increased risk of dementia, scientists say.

Elderly stock – Hearing
Elderly stock – Hearing

Trouble hearing speech in noisy environments may be associated with an increased risk of dementia, research suggests.

Scientists at Oxford University have found speech-in-noise hearing impairment to be linked to 91% increased risk of developing the condition.

They said the findings, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal Of The Alzheimer’s Association, could help identify those at dementia risk and use treatments to prevent the disease.

Dr Thomas Littlejohns, senior epidemiologist at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Population Health (NDPH), and senior author of the study, said: “Dementia affects millions of individuals worldwide, with the number of cases projected to treble in the next few decades.

“However, there is growing evidence that developing dementia is not inevitable and that the risk could be reduced by treating pre-existing conditions.

“Whilst preliminary, these results suggest speech-in-noise hearing impairment could represent a promising target for dementia prevention.”

For the study, the researchers looked at data involving more than 82,000 women and men aged 60 years or older from UK Biobank, which holds health and genetic information on around half a million people.

At the start of the study, the participants were asked to identify spoken numbers against a background of white noise and, based on this test, were grouped by the researchers into normal, insufficient and poor speech-in-noise hearing.

After following the test subjects for more than a decade, 1,285 participants were identified as developing dementia, based on hospital inpatient and death register records.

The researchers found insufficient and poor speech-in-noise hearing to be associated with a 61% and 91% increased risk of developing dementia, respectively, when compared to normal speech-in-noise hearing.

Commenting on the research, Dr Katy Stubbs, from Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “While most people think of memory problems when we hear the word dementia, this is far from the whole story.

“Many people with dementia will experience difficulty following speech in a noisy environment – a symptom sometimes called the ‘cocktail party problem’.

“This study suggests that these hearing changes may not just be a symptom of dementia, but a risk factor that could potentially be treated.”

Hearing impairment is thought to affect around 1.5 billion individuals worldwide, according to figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

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