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home : columns : ask the doctors April 7, 2020

1/24/2020 8:37:00 AM
Hearing aid use can reduce risk of cognitive decline

Dear Doctor: Our grandfather won't use his hearing aid because he doesn't like how it makes things sound. However, I recently read that using a hearing aid reduces the risk of dementia. How can we get him to use one?

Dear Reader: Your grandfather isn't alone in his reluctance to use a hearing aid. Many people with hearing loss wait as long as 10 years before finally agreeing to seek help. Meanwhile, poor hearing hinders their ability to communicate and interact with family, friends and the world at large. This leads to isolation and depression, and as a growing body of research shows, also increases the risk of cognitive decline.

A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society last fall found that when older adults with hearing loss used a hearing aid within three years of their diagnosis, they had measurably better outcomes in several important health categories than those who didn't correct their hearing. Those who used a hearing aid had lower rates of dementia and depression, as well as fewer injuries due to falls.

The researchers examined eight years of insurance data for almost 115,000 women and men over age 66 who were diagnosed with hearing loss. They found that the risk of a dementia diagnosis, including Alzheimer's disease, was 18% lower among the hearing aid users. The risk of becoming injured in a fall dropped 11%, and the risk of depression was also 11% lower. Their findings are consistent with previous research that established a clear connection between even mild uncorrected hearing loss and an increased risk of dementia and depression.

The next step in the research is to pinpoint how and why uncorrected hearing loss is tied to dementia and cognitive decline. One theory is that hearing loss leads to structural changes in the brain, which in turn affect memory. Another ties it to the profound social isolation that hearing loss can cause.

Meanwhile, your efforts to persuade your grandfather to use a hearing aid aren't unusual. The insurance data used in the study revealed that, among those diagnosed with hearing loss, an average of only 12% went on to get hearing aids.

We think it's encouraging that your grandfather already owns a device. He has shown himself to be open to improving his hearing and may just need a bit of help to get on the right track. Try talking to him about what, specifically, he doesn't like about his current hearing aid. Then if you have the time, do some research about the current technology and offer to help find a replacement.

Shopping for a hearing aid can be confusing and, with hearing loss, daunting. There are several types, with different fits and placements. Be sure your grandfather is using a reputable audiologist who can help him to find the perfect device. It's possible that with ongoing support, your grandfather may be willing to give hearing aids another try.

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