Hearing and dementia: from ears to brain

Brain. 2021 Mar 3;144(2):391-401. doi: 10.1093/brain/awaa429.


The association between hearing impairment and dementia has emerged as a major public health challenge, with significant opportunities for earlier diagnosis, treatment and prevention. However, the nature of this association has not been defined. We hear with our brains, particularly within the complex soundscapes of everyday life: neurodegenerative pathologies target the auditory brain, and are therefore predicted to damage hearing function early and profoundly. Here we present evidence for this proposition, based on structural and functional features of auditory brain organization that confer vulnerability to neurodegeneration, the extensive, reciprocal interplay between 'peripheral' and 'central' hearing dysfunction, and recently characterized auditory signatures of canonical neurodegenerative dementias (Alzheimer's disease, Lewy body disease and frontotemporal dementia). Moving beyond any simple dichotomy of ear and brain, we argue for a reappraisal of the role of auditory cognitive dysfunction and the critical coupling of brain to peripheral organs of hearing in the dementias. We call for a clinical assessment of real-world hearing in these diseases that moves beyond pure tone perception to the development of novel auditory 'cognitive stress tests' and proximity markers for the early diagnosis of dementia and management strategies that harness retained auditory plasticity.

Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease; Lewy body disease; dementia; frontotemporal dementia; hearing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Alzheimer Disease / complications
  • Auditory Perception / physiology
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / complications
  • Comorbidity
  • Dementia / complications
  • Dementia / physiopathology*
  • Frontotemporal Dementia / complications
  • Hearing / physiology
  • Hearing Loss / complications
  • Hearing Loss / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Lewy Body Disease / complications
  • Middle Aged