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Hearing Aids May Lower Dementia Risk, Study Finds

Treating hearing loss linked to decrease in cognitive decline

close-up of woman putting in an over-the-counter hearing aid
AndreyPopov/Getty Images

Almost 10 percent of people between the ages of 55 and 64, a quarter of people ages 65 to 74, and half of those age 75 and older live with disabling hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Research has long associated hearing loss with dementia. However, what hasn’t been clear is whether treating the hearing loss will also help prevent or slow down memory loss. Now a new meta-analysis published earlier this month in JAMA Neurology offers convincing evidence that it may. 

“We’re much more confident that there is a good association between hearing aid use and reversing chance of cognitive decline,” says Justin Golub, M.D., an associate professor of otolaryngology, neurotology and skull base surgery at the New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City.

What the research found about hearing loss and dementia

Researchers analyzed 31 studies, both observational and clinical trials, and looked at the link between hearing restoration devices, such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, and cognitive decline. They found that the use of these devices was associated not only with a 19 percent decrease in long-term cognitive decline but also with a 3 percent improvement in cognitive test scores in the short term — anywhere from three months to a year.

This is a significant improvement, notes Douglas Hildrew, M.D., an assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine in the Section of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. “It’s something we would hope to see — but not necessarily expect to,” he says.

AARP's Hearing Loss for Dummies book by Frank Lin, MD, PhD, and Nicholas Reed, AuD

'Hearing Loss for Dummies'

Authors Frank Lin and Nicholas Reed at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine lay out the steps to hearing health, including the benefits for your cognitive, emotional and physical well-being.

AARP's Hearing Loss for Dummies book by Frank Lin, MD, PhD, and Nicholas Reed, AuD

'Hearing Loss for Dummies'

Authors Frank Lin and Nicholas Reed at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine lay out the steps to hearing health, including the benefits for your cognitive, emotional and physical well-being.

There are several theories about the connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline, adds Golub. “People who cannot hear as well socialize less and engage less with others because it’s more challenging to communicate,” he says. “That’s a problem in older life, because part of what keeps you healthy and vital is having cognitively meaningful and stimulating conversations.”

In addition, he notes, the brains of people with hearing loss have to work harder to understand words being said. This can drain what scientists call cognitive reserve, which is the brain’s resilience against disease.

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Finally, some research suggests that people with hearing loss have faster rates of brain shrinkage in the temporal lobe — the brain’s hearing processing center. “Since this is connected to other parts of the brain, it can have cascading consequences,” Golub explains.

“Scientists estimate that hearing loss may be the biggest potentially treatable risk factor for dementia, accounting for more cases of dementia in the world than other risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking or low education,” write audiologist Nicholas Reed and Frank Lin, M.D., in 'Hearing Loss for Dummies.'

How to cope with hearing loss

While hearing loss is associated with cognitive decline, it can be corrected. Hildrew recommends that everyone over the age of 60 get their hearing checked once a year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends getting your hearing checked if you notice any signs of hearing loss, such as:

  • Trouble understanding conversations in loud environments, like in a restaurant
  • Difficulty understanding speech over the phone
  • Trouble hearing consonants (for example, trouble hearing the difference between s and f)
  • Frequently asking others to repeat what they said or to speak more slowly and clearly
  • Ringing in the ear
  • Needing to turn the TV volume way up

If you are diagnosed with hearing loss, talk to your doctor about whether you need a hearing aid. The good news is that over-the-counter hearing aids are now available, says Golub. These are designed for people with mild to moderate hearing loss and can be purchased without a prescription.

“Ideally, people with hearing loss would get a prescription hearing aid, but that’s a very expensive purchase for most Americans,” he says. The average price for a pair of prescription hearing aids is $4,600. The new over-the-counter hearing devices, which are regulated by the FDA to ensure that they are safe and effective, currently range in price from around $200 to $1,000 a pair.

These shouldn’t be confused with personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), another class of amplifying devices that you can buy without a prescription. These aren’t regulated as medical devices by the FDA, so “it’s like the Wild West,” says Golub. He recommends that you stick to over-the-counter or prescription hearing aids instead.

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