One of the battlegrounds of the upcoming general election is social care. With regular warnings of a system on the brink of collapse due to an increasingly ageing population, all the political parties are outlining how they would fund social care over the long-term.
At this important time, BIHIMA and many members of the audiology industry would urge policy makers to consider the role of hearing care in a holistic approach to social care, acknowledging that hearing loss is strongly linked with social isolation and increased dementia risk.
We believe that hearing technology can have a vital and cost effective impact on the social and physical wellbeing of an ageing population and that greater access to hearing technology should be prioritised in government thinking about social care.
In the last five years, there has been significant research showing how hearing loss directly contributes to dementia and cognitive decline. For example, Dr Frank Lin, otolaryngologist and epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in the US, has estimated that as much as a 36% of dementia risk is attributable to hearing impairment. When a person needs to strain to listen to “a very garbled message through the ear”, it overtaxes the brain which can in turn cause atrophy and changes in brain structure.
“Treating hearing loss could potentially help reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia,” said Dr Lin, who plans to begin the first clinical trial to study whether hearing aids could prevent or mitigate brain decline.
Action on Hearing Loss agrees that hearing technology could play a vital role, pointing out the evidence suggesting that wearing hearing aids helps by improving working memory (the short term memory that we use to complete everyday tasks). It argues that hearing aids can also help prevent some of the other risks and conditions associated with dementia, such as falls, depression and social isolation.
The charity also points out that proper and early diagnosis and management of hearing loss can reduce the risk of dementia, especially in the early stages. The difficulty for GPs is that the communication problems caused by hearing loss and dementia can lead to misdiagnosis of either or both conditions. “Hearing loss can be misdiagnosed as dementia, or make the symptoms of dementia appear worse. Health professionals need to be aware of the association between the two, and the likelihood that they will occur together.”
BIHIMA fully supports the efforts of charities like Action for Hearing Loss in its efforts to educate health professionals about the need for early intervention and swift access to hearing solutions. We also reiterate our call to policy makers to consider the role of hearing technology in what would be a cost-effective approach to social care.