For people with hearing loss or impairment, hearing aids can be life-changing. Hearing aids can allow for easier communication, enable the wearer to more fully participate in social activities, and much more. While the social and personal benefits of hearing aids are quite apparent, the medical and health benefits may not be as easy to see.
Recent research has found a connection between untreated hearing loss and a higher risk for medical conditions like dementia, anxiety, depression, falls, and more. There appears to be a particular link between untreated hearing loss and dementia among older adults. Researchers hypothesize that eliminating midlife hearing loss or impairment could theoretically reduce the number of dementia cases by 9%. While this percentage may not be exact, it still represents a significant portion of all dementia cases.
In most studies focused on the links between untreated hearing loss and these other health conditions, researchers assess the differences between those with untreated hearing loss and those who receive treatment for hearing impairment (e.g., hearing aids). While researchers strive to adjust their findings to allow for differences in demographics, such as gender, marital status, education, physical activity, and more, it is possible that some differences seen between the two groups are due to these other factors or a combination of factors.
To better evaluate the difference between those with untreated hearing loss and those who wear hearing aids, a recent study instead focused on assessing the same individuals before and after they received treatment for hearing loss. By studying the same individuals, researchers were able to better evaluate whether treatment for hearing loss affected cognitive decline.
The study followed 2,040 respondents aged 50 years and older in the US Health and Retirement Study who began using hearing aids sometime during the study. Researchers assessed each individual’s cognitive function using memory tests. For study participants who began using hearing aids, the change was noticeable. Before using hearing aids, respondents could remember an average of 0.1 fewer words on the memory test per year. After they began using hearing aids, the same respondents could remember an average of 0.02 fewer words per year.
The results of this study indicate that using hearing aids can have a significant effect on the rate of cognitive decline among older adults. It is apparent that proper identification and testing of hearing impairment, followed by the use of hearing aids, can slow a decline in cognitive function.
Although the exact correlation between hearing loss and cognitive decline is still being explored, there are several factors that could contribute to this connection. First, older adults who use hearing aids are at a lower risk for depression and are more likely to participate in cognitively stimulating social engagement, physical activity, and self-efficacy. Second, the use of hearing aids might help to reverse the effects of sensory deprivation on brain function.
With 47 million people worldwide suffering from dementia—and that statistic expected to more than double to 131 million over the next 30 years—it is obvious that prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of hearing loss is essential.
If you suspect that you or a loved one is experiencing hearing loss, please contact our audiology practice today. We are ready to provide you with the personalized care you need.