MELBOURNE, Australia — Hearing loss in old age can be very frustrating, but it probably seems like nothing more than a minor inconvenience in comparison to loss of cognition and dementia. Luckily, researchers at the University of Melbourne believe hearing aids can effectively kill two birds with one stone. Besides just providing improved hearing, these aids have shown the ability to delay cognitive decline in older individuals and even improve overall brain functioning.
Hearing difficulties in older people is a very common development; it’s estimated that 32% of people over the age of 55 deal with some form of impaired hearing, and over 70% of individuals over the age of 70 experience hearing loss. Moreover, hearing problems have already been identified as a contributing risk factor for dementia and cognition problems.
With this in mind, the research team wanted to see if hearing aid use could help curb mental decline. They analyzed the use of hearing aids among 100 older (ages 62-82) adults already dealing with hearing loss.
Each study subject was assessed before being given a hearing aid, and then again after using the aid for 18 months. Participants’ cognitive functioning, overall hearing, quality of life, speech perception, exercise habits, medical history, loneliness, and mood were all measured during both assessments.
After using the hearing aids for a year and a half, the participants speech perception, self-reported hearing quality, and overall quality of life had all greatly improved.
Incredibly, 97.3% exhibited either significant improvement, or at the very least stability, in their mental executive functioning. For reference, executive functioning is considered an individual’s ability to plan, organize, and get started on tasks.
Female participants seemed to especially benefit from the hearing aids in regards to their working memory (reasoning, making decisions).
The more participants reported using their hearing aid, the greater their cognitive improvements. For whatever reason, female participants were much more diligent when it came to wearing their hearing aids regularly.
These findings are really quite noteworthy; it is no small achievement to improve cognition in an older adult. Doctors can spend years and numerous strategies trying to help patients in such scenarios, and in many cases their efforts are fruitless.
“Although there are successful treatments for hearing loss, there is currently no successful treatment for cognitive decline or dementia,” comments the study’s chief investigator Julia Sarant, an associate professor at UM, in a release. “This research is a positive step in investigating the treatment of hearing aids to delay cognitive decline. Further research is underway to compare cognitive outcomes from a larger sample size with those of a healthy aging comparison group of older Australians with typical hearing for their age.”
The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.