New Study on Hearing Aids Reducing the Risk for Dementia

In Dementia & Alzheimer's Disease by Jennifer G. Mayer, Au.D., CCC-A

Jennifer G. Mayer, Au.D., CCC-A
Latest posts by Jennifer G. Mayer, Au.D., CCC-A (see all)

Though the precise nature of the connection between hearing loss and dementia continues to be investigated, study after study has demonstrated that a connection exists. Something in the brain responds to both hearing loss and the process of cognition. Those with untreated hearing loss are more likely to develop dementia than those who do not have hearing loss. Even among those who have dementia, those who have hearing loss tend to have a faster pace of cognitive decline than those who don’t have hearing loss. 

With these facts in mind, researchers have been keen to understand the role that hearing aids play in preventing dementia. If something in the body directly linked hearing loss with dementia, then hearing aids would make no difference. Yet, if the connection really has to do with other factors such as communication or social interaction, then one would expect hearing aids to make a difference. 

A recent study has demonstrated evidence for that latter case. Those who wear hearing aids are less likely to make the transition from mild cognitive impairment to a diagnosis of dementia. Though memory loss and other cognitive issues are common in older age, it appears that wearing hearing aids can prevent the problem from escalating to dementia, including Alzheimer’s. Let’s look at the study, as well as what we can infer from the findings. 

The Study

Researchers at the Ulster University and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, as well as Fujian Medical University Union Hospital in China, published the paper “Association of the use of hearing aids with the conversion from mild cognitive impairment to dementia and progression of dementia: A longitudinal retrospective study” in the journal Translational Research and Clinical Interventions. 

This study used data from 2114 hearing-impaired patients collected by the National Alzheimer’s Coordinating Center. Using the longitudinal data from that source, the team of researchers were able to identify that, among those who had hearing loss or impairment, those who wore hearing aids were less likely to make the transition from mild cognitive impairment to all-cause dementia. Clinicians made the determination of an individual’s cognitive status through medical history, medication use, neuropsychological test performance, and other modifying factors, such as educational and cultural background and behavioral assessments. 

With all of these factors in mind, the clinicians determined whether the person had mild cognitive impairment or if cognitive issues should be classified as dementia. The information on hearing aid use was collected through the simple question, “Do you usually wear a hearing aid(s)?” Participants reported their answers to that question with a simple yes or no. After mining the possibilities for error and unknown variables, the researchers determined that hearing aid use did indeed prevent some people from making the shift from mild cognitive impairment to dementia. 

The Discussion

Many facts can be gleaned from this finding. First, the connection between dementia and hearing loss most likely has to do with the experience of hearing in the world, not some underlying bodily condition that causes both hearing loss and dementia. Although that physical connection remains a possibility, much of the relationship has to do with the ability to hear in the world, and researchers suspect that communication ability is the biggest piece of the puzzle. 

Future research should identify how often participants were wearing hearing aids, and an additional measure of actual use would help establish a stronger connection between these two factors. With what we know about the recruitment of other parts of the brain to help process language among those who have untreated hearing loss, future studies can also use brain imaging to make sense of the connection. Perhaps the most important implication of this study is a prompt to seek treatment for hearing loss as soon as possible. 

If you have a loved one with hearing loss, putting hearing aids in use might have an effect that reaches far beyond the experience of hearing. You might even be able to prevent dementia from occurring down the line. Though mild cognitive impairment is quite common in older age, your loved one can continue to exercise communication skills and perhaps prevent dementia in the process.