A new study has suggested that hearing aids may reduce cognitive decline in older people.
Lamentably, age is associated with both hearing loss and dementia, and these two ailments affect each other.
A new report published in The Lancet suggests that the use of hearing aids may reduce cognitive decline and, therefore, the risk of dementia.
While the study showed that hearing aids had little impact on the sample overall, it found that treatment for hearing loss could protect against dementia in those most at risk – older adults.
Hearing loss and dementia – the links
Of course, it is common knowledge that hearing declines with age. What remains uncertain, however, is why hearing loss increases the risk of dementia.
Researchers think the reason is threefold. Firstly, the wearing out of the cochlea over time means that the audio messages sent to the brain are unclear. The brain, therefore, has to work harder to understand the messages, causing strain.
It is also suggested that hearing loss causes the brain to atrophy more quickly. Furthermore, those with hearing difficulties tend to be more reluctant to participate in social events, which adversely affects brain function.
“Staying really engaged in social activities is very important for maintaining our cognitive health as well,” noted Dr Frank Lin, the study’s co-principal investigator.
Study results – hearing aids may reduce risk of dementia
The study involved over 3,000 participants from two sample populations: healthy volunteers and older people with a greater risk of dementia, according to the ongoing Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study.
Participants either received counselling in chronic disease prevention or treatment from an audiologist, including hearing aids. Researchers followed up every six months, and after three years, participants completed a neurocognitive test.
The results showed that hearing aids had little impact overall. However, among the higher-risk group, the rate of cognitive decline slowed by 48%.
Dr Lin suggested that the smaller change shown in the overall results could have to do with the fact that many of the healthy participants were not experiencing cognitive decline anyway: “We can’t slow down something that’s already really not changing”.
The future – what this means for people with dementia
Age-related hearing loss affects two-thirds of the global over-60 population. Despite this, less than ten per cent of affected people in low- and middle-income countries use hearing aids. The rate is fewer than three in ten in high-income countries.
Dr Lin urges those unsure about their hearing to get it checked. At the same time, Dr Benjamin Tan of the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore suggests using a hearing aid even if hearing loss is mild.
“It is a simple, effective, and practically risk-free method to preserve your cognition as much as possible,” said Tan.
Tan also encouraged those who lack access to specialist treatment to seek over-the-counter hearing aids, noting that these are better than not wearing an aid at all.
Access the report via The Lancet.