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Why Helping Your Hearing May Help Support Your Brain

Research shows that hearing aids may improve thinking skills


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Can your hearing affect thinking and memory?

The answer appears to be yes. Research shows that hearing loss — which affects about 1 in 3 Americans ages 65 to 74 and nearly half of those older than 75 — is a risk factor for dementia. It’s also been linked to a greater risk of depression, falls and cognitive decline — problems with memory, learning and thinking skills.

On average, older adults with hearing loss develop a significant decline in their cognitive abilities about three years sooner than those with normal hearing, according to a study led by Johns Hopkins University researcher Frank Lin, a leading expert in hearing loss and the brain. Other studies also suggest that untreated hearing loss may accelerate cognitive decline.

“Looking after your hearing health is also looking after your brain health,” notes Australian researcher Julia Sarant, an associate professor and audiologist at the University of Melbourne, in an email. “If you want to enjoy quality of life for as long as possible, both in terms of your ability to communicate with the people you care about as well as maintaining your cognitive function, my advice is to have your hearing tested regularly and to use hearing aids consistently when advised to do so.”

Research has shown a link between hearing loss and the rate of cognitive decline in older adults, says Sarant, lead researcher in a study looking at hearing aids’ effect on mental function.

A July 2017 analysis in the journal The Lancet, for example, found that even for people with mild hearing loss, “The rate of cognitive decline can be 30 to 40 percent faster than for a person with normal hearing … while the risk for people with a severe hearing loss is almost five times higher,” Sarant wrote of the analysis in an article for the university’s online research magazine.

And that decline can start earlier than you think, she notes. A July 2019 study in JAMA, of more than 16,000 adults, found that hearing loss was associated with a risk of dementia in midlife, especially in patients ages 45 to 64.

Could using a hearing aid help delay this decline?

In their study, published in January 2020 in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, Sarant and a team of researchers worked with 99 adults between the ages of 62 and 82 with hearing loss who were fitted with hearing aids to wear for 18 months. Before and after the study, participants took mental skills tests, underwent hearing assessments (including the ability to hear and understand speech) and were asked about their mental health — particularly loneliness, isolation and quality of life. After 18 months, just over 97 percent showed either significant improvement or at least no decline in certain brain function skills, such as working memory.

Women showed more improvement on a range of mental skills tests than men did, which Sarant credits to women wearing their hearing aids more than the men — 56 percent versus 33 percent of the time. Because of that, “[women] received more of the brain stimulation and other benefits” that enhanced hearing can provide, she says.

The study’s participants also improved not only their ability to hear and understand speech under normal conversation conditions, but also their quality of life. All of this suggests that wearing hearing aids may delay cognitive decline and may even improve brain function, the researchers said.

The degree of improvement was surprising, Sarant says. “I was hoping to see treatment of hearing loss slow down or delay cognitive decline, [but] seeing participants significantly improve their cognitive function was the most surprising finding,” she says.

The initial results suggest that it is possible for people who use hearing aids to not only slow the expected rate of cognitive decline but to reverse it, at least for some mental skills, the study suggests. (Note: Sarant’s study was funded by a research grant from hearing aid maker Sonova.)

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