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Hearing impairment linked to increased dementia risk

A new study by researchers at the University of Oxford has found that the risk of dementia is higher for those with hearing impairment.

A major component of hearing impairment is difficulty hearing speech in noisy environments and the study found that people who struggled with hearing spoken conversations had a 91 per cent increased risk of dementia.

Dr Thomas Littlejohns, senior epidemiologist in the 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."

This is the first study to investigate the association of difficulty hearing speech in background noise with dementia in a large population. The researchers looked at over 82,000 women and men aged 60 years or older from UK Biobank.

They were followed up over an 11-year period and it was found that 1,285 participants were identified as developing dementia based on hospital inpatient and death register records.

Insufficient and poor speech-in-noise hearing were associated with a 61 per cent and 91 per cent increased risk of developing dementia, compared to normal speech-in-noise hearing, respectively.

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

"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 affects around 1.5 billion individuals worldwide.

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