Many people don’t like the idea of wearing hearing aids as they age. It can feel like “giving in” to aging. No one wants to feel old. However, being able to hear and enjoy your life is worth it. And, even more than being able to fully participate in the world around you, hearing aids may lower the risk of developing dementia.
A new study found that hearing loss increases the risk of developing dementia. However, wearing hearing aids lowered the risk of being the same as those without hearing problems. The study followed more than 437,000 people. The researchers accounted for factors that could impact older people, like social isolation, depression and loneliness but still saw a strong correlation between hearing and dementia.
“The evidence is building that hearing loss may be the most impactful modifiable risk factor for dementia in mid-life,” said corresponding study author Dongshan Zhu, a professor at Shandong Univ. “Our study provides the best evidence to date to suggest that hearing aids could be a minimally invasive, cost-effective treatment to mitigate the potential impact of hearing loss on dementia.”
“The paper also explores some of the possible reasons as to how hearing aids may work, tending to (favor) the idea that they are effective because they reduce the cognitive effort involved in hearing and/or they reduce the effects of sensory deprivation if you can’t hear,” Tom Dening, a professor of dementia research at the Univ. of Nottingham who wasn’t involved in the study. “We need to use studies like this to encourage the public not to be embarrassed by hearing problems and to seek assessment and treatment sooner rather than later.”
Dr. Karina De Sousa of the Univ. of Pretoria in South Africa was the lead author of a new study looking at over-the-counter hearing aids. “A recent study showed that only 15 percent of U.S. adults with hearing loss use hearing aids,” she said. “There are many potential reasons people opt not to get hearing aids, but one issue has been the accessibility and affordability of the devices.”
While only 15 percent of people with hearing loss use hearing aids, it’s estimated that 23 percent of people aged 12 and over have hearing loss in the U.S. While it’s mild for many people, it’s possible not to know how bad your hearing is. It can gradually worsen as you are exposed to loud sounds over time. In a study, only a third of people over the age of 70 had normal hearing. Six percent of the people in that study with normal hearing had dementia. For folks with severe hearing loss, it was 17 percent.
However, it is important to remember that a link is different from a cause. While the two may be linked, it is not clear that poor hearing causes dementia, and more research is needed. Robert Howard, professor of old age psychiatry at Univ. College London wasn’t involved in the study. He said, “This is a large and well-conducted study, but we should always remember that association is not the same as causation. I’m skeptical that use of hearing aids can be considered to prevent dementia. It seems more plausible to me that the association reflects that individuals on their way to developing dementia struggle to take up or use hearing aids. But hearing aids are important in reducing isolation and increasing quality of life, so we should encourage their use anyway.”
He may be right, and more research is needed before we know things definitively. But we do know that being able to hear vastly improves the quality of a person’s life and allows them to interact with the world and people around them more. So, check in with your doctor about your hearing at your next appointment.