Many people see hearing loss as a normal part of aging.
There’s a good reason for this. Age-related hearing loss, or presbycusis, is one of the most common health conditions affecting older adults. Tens of millions of people worldwide are affected. In the United States, as many as one person out of every three over age 65, and half of those over 85, have some hearing loss.1
But here’s the kicker: although age-related hearing loss can be easily treated, only about 14 percent of adult Americans with hearing loss wear hearing aids.2 People aren’t getting the treatment they need.
Some people shun hearing aids because of the “old-age” stigma, while others just can’t afford them as they are seldom covered by health plans. No matter what your feelings about hearing aids, if you need them the latest research shows you shouldn’t delay because your memory might depend on them.
It’s no exaggeration to say, “Lose your hearing, lose your mind”. . .
We’ve written about the link between hearing loss and memory loss before, and now even more new research points to a strong link between untreated hearing loss and cognitive decline.
The Connection Between Your Brain and Your Ears
Researchers first studied the possible connection between hearing loss and dementia on a large scale in 2011.
Dr. Frank Lin, at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, published the results of a study that tested the hearing of 639 older adults who where dementia-free. The scientists tracked them for nearly 12 years; 58 developed Alzheimer’s or another cognitive impairment.3
They found that a participant’s chance of developing dementia increased in direct proportion to the severity of his or her hearing loss at the onset of the study.
In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Lin said the relationship seems to be “very, very linear.”4 Meaning that the greater the hearing loss, the greater the risk of developing dementia.
On the flip side, researchers recently discovered some good news: Wearing hearing aids may delay cognitive decline in older adults and even improve brain function.
Hearing Aids Can Delay Dementia
Researchers at the University of Melbourne recently tested the use of hearing aids in almost 100 adults, aged 62 to 82, with hearing loss.
After 18 months of hearing aid use, researchers found speech perception, self-reported listening disability and quality of life had significantly improved for participants.5
But here’s the most promising news…
Scientists discovered that an incredible 97.3 percent of participants in this study showed either clinically significant improvement or stability in executive function. This is the mental ability to plan, organize information, and initiate tasks. It’s often lost in Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.
What’s more, it seems that women, in particular, reaped the cognitive rewards of hearing loss treatment. They benefited in the working memory department, used for reasoning and decision-making.
Scientists found that more frequent use of hearing aids was linked to greater improvements in cognitive function. And women were much more vigilant about wearing the devices than men.
Effective Treatment for Cognitive Decline
University of Melbourne Associate Professor and Chief Investigator of the study, Julia Sarant, explained the significance of the study findings, noting that researchers seldom see cognitive function improvement in older adults.
“Although there are successful treatments for hearing loss, there is currently no successful treatment for cognitive decline or dementia,” Professor Sarant said. [Editor’s note: not quite true but conventional medicine persists in believing this.] “This research is a positive step in investigating the treatment of hearing aids to delay cognitive decline.”
She looks forward to examining the outcomes from a larger sample size with those of a healthy aging comparison group of older Australians who have typical hearing for their age.
Worth the Cost
At this point Medicare does not cover 100 percent of the cost of hearing aids. I’m hopeful that studies like these will push lawmakers to amend the program to cover hearing aids and services.
To that point, The National Institute on Aging is currently funding the first randomized controlled trial led by Dr. Lin to see whether older adults who get hearing aids are less likely to develop dementia when compared with older adults who participate in an exercise and nutrition program and don’t receive hearing aids.
Will those with hearing aids be less likely to develop dementia? I’ll be eager to see the results.
In the meantime, I advocate a two-pronged approach; treat hearing loss and follow all the known components of healthy aging, including a healthy diet and regular exercise.
- “Hearing aids may delay cognitive decline.”ScienceDaily. 26 February 2020.