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Difficulty hearing speech in noisy places linked to dementia

A new study has suggested that people who have difficulty hearing what others are saying in noisy environments are at increased risk of developing dementia.

The research published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, released on 21 July revealed that participants with poor or insufficient speech-in-noise (SiN) hearing were more likely to suffer from dementia.

The study, conducted over 11 years and led by the University of Oxford, involved more than 82,000 people, all aged over 60 years. The researchers detected 1,285 cases of dementia. Compared with those with normal SiN results at the start of the study, those in insufficient SiN hearing were 61 percent more likely to develop dementia, and those in the poor SiN group were 91 percent more likely.

The phenomenon has been dubbed, “the cocktail party problem” by Alzheimer’s Research UK, referring to the challenge people have focusing on a single speaker or conversation in a noisy environment.

The study follows a 2020 Lancet Commission report on dementia prevention in which hearing loss was identified as one of 12 major, modifiable risk factors for dementia.

The authors of the Lancet report estimated that, if causal, hearing impairment could be responsible for about eight per cent of dementia cases.

The next step in researching the links between dementia and speech-in-noise hearing loss will be to investigate whether immediately treating mid-life hearing impairments can reduce the risk of dementia developing in a person’s senior years.

According to Work Safe Australia, an estimated 1 million employees in Australia may be exposed to hazardous levels of noise at work in the absence of hearing protection (Commonwealth of Australia 2006) and therefore permanent irreversible hearing loss.

Hearing Australia recommends three measures that can help prevent hearing loss:

  • Be aware of your exposure to loud sound and look for ways to reduce it. Ways of doing this include turning down the volume when listening to loud music or radio, buying a power tool with a lower noise rating or standing further from speakers at a live music even.
  • Get to know your sound dose. It is not just the loudness of sound that causes damage to hearing, but also how long you listen to it. In workplaces, there are daily exposure limits in place to protect hearing. Ensure that you or your employer is aware of these limits.
  • Take control of your sound exposure with earplugs or earmuffs. Putting on a set of earmuffs or using earplugs is a great option – not only will you protect your hearing, you’ll also block out the unwanted sound. If you work in a noisy environment, such as a construction site or manufacturing plant, earplugs or earmuffs should be available for you to use. If not, ask your health and safety officer.

Ensuring the workplace provides hearing and noise assessments is the key to protecting the hearing of your employees and in many states and territories there are strict regulations in place.

Having a noise assessment and regular hearing test is also important in managing risk; given staff can be exposed to many sources of loud noise outside the workplace, it is important that an employer can demonstrate damage is not occurring within the workplace.

If you’re an employer, contact Mobile Screening on 1300 84 84 80 to discuss how we can help.

  1. Commonwealth of Australia 2006, Work-related noise induced hearing loss in Australia (2006), Australian Safety and Compensation Council, viewed 28 July 2021, <>

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