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Hearing and dementia (again)

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approaches to dementia care, communication, research

Both hearing loss and dementia become very common as people get older and it is therefore to be expected that a lot of people will have both problems eventually. As readers of this blog will probably know, there are about three-quarters of a million people living with dementia in the UK. There are also about 11 million people with some degree of hearing loss. The prevalence of this rises sharply with age so about 70% over people over 70 years old have hearing loss. Worldwide the figure for hearing loss is 1.2 billion people though ‘only’ 250 million have moderate to severe hearing loss.

Studies suggest that there may be a relationship between hearing loss, cognitive impairment and dementia. However, this is not simple. Besides, even if there is a relationship, does that mean that deafness can cause dementia? Also, if a person has both problems together, then this combination makes many things more difficult, including communication, social interaction, using the phone, and so on. A person with dementia may struggle to use a hearing aid. People with poor hearing may be assumed to have dementia when actually they just can’t hear what is being asked of them. Both dementia and hearing loss are found in most residents of care homes.

Because of issues like these, and because there is relatively little research on hearing loss and dementia, my colleague Jen Yates and I held a research workshop last week. Nottingham is a great place to do this as we have the resources of the Institute of Mental Health and the Centre for Dementia on the one hand and the Institute of Hearing Research and the Nottingham Hearing Biomedical Research Unit on the other. The workshop was well attended even though it was Friday afternoon, and we had a great mixture of attendees, ranging from senior researchers to clinicians, such as the Notts Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust’s Dementia Outreach Team, who work with care home residents with dementia.

We started with some short presentations, giving the background to research on hearing and cognition, and presenting some data from a population-based study contrasting people who have objective hearing loss and those who have subjective complaints of poor hearing. Anna Lindstrand, already a Dementia Day to Day blogger, talked about her work in audiology, and we had research presentations about the relationships between cognition and speech perception and also about one of our planned studies to look at hearing and communication in care homes.

The other half of the afternoon divided into some animated workshop discussions, leaving Jen and me with a mixture of flipchart paper and post-it notes to work out what we should do next. There are some good ideas for further research that we can undertake, some using existing data, and there’s a need to design a good intervention to help people afflicted by both poor haring and dementia. We are really grateful to contributors for their time, energy and ideas.

Tom Dening (written in conjunction with Jen Yates)

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