Two studies have concluded that people who wear hearing aids for age-related hearing problems maintain better brain function than those who do not.
It builds on important research in recent years pulled together by the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care, through which hearing loss emerged as an important risk factor for dementia.
The findings from the first study from the University of Exeter, which was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles, provide early evidence that encouraging people to wear an effective hearing aid may help to protect their brains and reduce their risk of dementia.
The University of Exeter study was conducted on two groups who took annual cognitive tests over two years. After that time, the group who wore hearing aids performed better in measures assessing working memory and aspects of attention than those who did not.
Dr Anne Corbett, from the University of Exeter, said: “Previous research has shown that hearing loss is linked to a loss of brain function, memory and an increased risk of dementia. Our work is one of the largest studies to look at the impact of wearing a hearing aid, and suggests that wearing a hearing aid could actually protect the brain. We now need more research and a clinical trial to test this and perhaps feed into policy to help keep people healthy in later life.”
A second study from the University of Michigan delivered similar results. It found that older adults who get a hearing aid for a newly diagnosed hearing loss have a lower risk of being diagnosed with dementia, depression or anxiety in the following three years, and a lower risk of suffering fall-related injuries, than those who leave their hearing loss uncorrected.
Dr Elham Mahmoudi, from the University of Michigan, says the new findings show differences emerging as time goes on.
“We already know that people with hearing loss have more adverse health events, and more co-existing conditions, but this study allows us to see the effects of an intervention and look for associations between hearing aids and health outcomes,” she explains.
“Though hearing aids can’t be said to prevent these conditions, a delay in the onset of dementia, depression and anxiety, and the risk of serious falls, could be significant.”
The University of Michigan study looked at data from nearly 115,000 people aged 66 or over who suffered from hearing loss. They studied the data for each person with hearing loss one year before their diagnosis, and three years after, so they could see only newly diagnosed dementia, depression, anxiety and fall injuries.
They intend to keep studying further data from this population, to see if the differences in health outcomes continue beyond three years.
When the researchers looked at the path that patients who received hearing aids took over three years, compared with those who didn’t get the devices, significant differences emerged.
In all, the relative risk of being diagnosed with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, within three years of a hearing loss diagnosis was 18 per cent lower for hearing aid users. The risk of being diagnosed with depression or anxiety by the end of three years was 11 per cent lower for hearing aid users, and the risk of being treated for fall-related injuries was 13 per cent lower.
The study also confirmed previous studies’ findings that people with hearing loss had much higher rates of dementia, depression and fall injuries than the general population.
The reasons for this are complicated, and can include loss of social interaction, loss of independence, loss of balance and less stimulation to the brain.
Some researchers also believe that the loss of nerve impulses from the ear to the brain, and loss of cognitive ability leading to dementia, could be part of the same ageing process.
“Correcting hearing loss is an intervention that has evidence behind it, and we hope our research will help clinicians and people with hearing loss understand the potential association between getting a hearing aid and other aspects of their health,” explains Dr Mahmoudi.
Do you suffer from hearing loss? Have you had your hearing checked recently? Do you have a hearing aid or have you been putting it off? Do these studies make you think differently about hearing aids?
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