Dementia: How hearing aids can help reduce the risk

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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Experts say hearing aids allow older adults to participate in more activities. Alessio Bogani/Stocksy United
  • Researchers are reporting that hearing aids can help lower the risk of early mortality.
  • They say that one reason is that hearing aids can help to prevent or slow the progression of dementia.
  • The stigma attached to hearing aids and the fear of losing them are some of the reasons people say they are reluctant to use the devices.

Hearing aids can help reduce mortality risk, according to a study published in The Lancet Healthy Longevity journal.

Researchers used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to identify nearly 10,000 adults who were 20 and older and had completed audiometry evaluations as well as filled out questionnaires about their hearing aid use.

The scientists followed 1,863 participants for 10 years to determine their mortality status.

The researchers noted that:

  • 237 study participants were regular hearing aid users. Regular use was wearing their hearing aid at least once a week, five hours a week, or half the time.
  • 1,483 were classified as never-users. This group included those who reported wearing their hearing aids less than once a month.

The researchers said there was nearly a 25% difference in mortality risk between regular hearing aid users and never-users.

This result remained true regardless of the degree of hearing loss, age, ethnicity, income, education, and other demographic factors.

The researchers said there was no difference between those who occasionally used their hearing aid and those who reported never using it, indicating the occasional use does not provide life-extending benefits.

The scientists did not examine why there was a difference in mortality risk, but Dr. Janet Choi, the lead study author and a specialist in neurotology and otolaryngology at the Caruso Department of Otolaryngology Head & Neck Surgery at the University of Southern California, speculated that causes of hearing loss, such as depression and loneliness, could be contributing factors.

One expert, however, expressed caution about reading too much into the study.

“I am concerned that people reading this study will be concerned that they are going to die earlier because of hearing loss,” added Dr. Darius Kohan, the chief of otology and neurotology at Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “This isn’t true. People do not die from hearing loss. They may die because of contributing circumstances, such as depression or loneliness.“

“I think it would be great if influencers, including celebrities, who have hearing loss and could talk openly about their experiences with hearing aids,” Kohan, who was not involved in the research, told Medical News Today. “This could encourage people to use them and lower the stigma associated with hearing aids.”

Another study published today that used data from the Hearing Examinations in Southern Denmark database, which contains data on all pure-tone audiometry examinations performed at public hearing rehabilitation clinics in southern Denmark, found that hearing aids might prevent or delay the progression of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

The study included people aged 50 and older. However, the researchers excluded those with dementia at baseline, those who did not have complete address information, and those who did not live in Denmark for the preceding five years.

The database included:

  • 573,088 people with a mean age of 60
  • 23,023 people with dementia

The scientists used medical records in the database to determine how many people had hearing loss and how many requested a hearing aid. They used requests for batteries as an indication of hearing aid use.

After analysis, the researchers found that people with hearing loss had a 7% higher risk of dementia, especially among those who did not use hearing aids.

The researchers noted that these risk estimates were substantially lower than in other studies, indicating a need for more high-quality longitudinal research.

A study published in August 2023 also underscored the risk of dementia in people with hearing loss and went as far as to say, “Treating hearing loss may be a safe way to lower the risk of dementia in vulnerable populations.”

In that study, researchers found that people with hearing aids had substantially better communication skills. Although that is predictable, the researchers also noted that the participants who received hearing aids had almost a 50% reduction in the rate of cognitive decline compared to a second group that was given education but not a hearing aid.

Experts suggest that older adults have their hearing checked regularly.

“Speaking from experience, I think we have to screen older patients who present with dementia for hearing loss,” said Dr. Shae Datta, the co-director of NYU Langone’s Concussion Center in New York and director of cognitive neurology at NYU Langone Hospital – Long Island.

“Hearing aids can remove barriers to comprehension,” Datta, who was not involved in the research, told Medical News Today.

The scientists in the latest dementia study indicated that the results suggested that hearing aids might prevent or delay the onset and progression of dementia.

“This is a great study,” Kohan said. “The participant pool is virtually an entire country, which makes the study worthwhile.”

“Hearing loss usually starts in a person’s 60s and develops slowly, so the person isn’t aware of it,” he added. “I think getting screened for hearing loss at that age would benefit people. It is possible to do it at home using an app. While the results might not be what you would receive from a doctor, they provide information on hearing loss.”

Dr. Michael Yong, an otolaryngologist and neurorhinologist at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in California who was not involved in the study, agreed.

He told Medical News Today that apps are a great tool, but he suggests they be used for screening and to answer the question, “Do I need to see a doctor?”

The researchers noted that only about 10% of people who could benefit from hearing aids use them.

“There is a lot of stigmas around hearing aids,” Datta said. “It may take counseling to convince them to wear them.”

“They allow people to interact with the world more fully,” added Kohan. “Many people are concerned that wearing a hearing aid makes them look old, but I think not hearing makes people look old. They tend to miss portions of conversations and may not answer when asked a question. They could make more mistakes or miss instructions to complete a task at work. Not hearing is more obvious than a hearing aid.”

“The cost can also be prohibitive. This factor has eased with the ability to buy hearing aids over the counter,” Kohan added. “These are pretty good, but they still need to be programmed. Certainly, they are better than nothing. Some doctors offer the service of programming them. You might buy hearing aids for $300 at the store and pay a few hundred to have them programmed, and you have a much less expensive set of hearing aids.”

Yong says in his work people have several objections to wearing hearing aids. They include:

  • Social stigma
  • Difficulty to maintain
  • Fear of losing them
  • Lacking the manual dexterity to put the devices into the ear

“It is important to educate patients,” Yong said. “Using a hearing aid has a learning curve. Medical professionals should open the discussion to find out the biggest objections and start from there. Today, there are a lot of different options. It is the medical professionals’ job to work with the patient and find the type that works best. People typically continue to use the hearing aid when they see a benefit.”

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