Is There Finally Proof That Wearing Hearing Devices Benefits Cognitive Function?

I am always interested in new research studies published in the hearing space and recently I came across an exciting one. I have written before about the increased risk of dementia associated with hearing loss (here and here) and linked to previous research studies that demonstrate this connection. But the question of whether utilizing hearing devices could lessen these risks was never addressed, until now.

A new study published in the October issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society concludes, “Self-reported hearing loss is associated with accelerated cognitive decline in older adults; hearing aid use attenuates such decline.” In other words, hearing aid use seemed to help prevent accelerated cognitive decline.

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The study entitled “Self-Reported Hearing Loss, Hearing Aids, and Cognitive Decline in Elderly Adults” was conducted in France using data from a 25-year study on brain aging. At the start of the study, the researchers asked the participants to self-report if they had hearing loss or not and then followed their performance on mental acuity tests over time.

The researchers found that over the time of the study, those that reported hearing loss and wore hearing aids exhibited cognitive decline that was the same magnitude as that of participants that did not self-report hearing loss. Those with self-reported hearing loss that did not wear hearing devices showed a more steep decline in cognitive function. In other words, among those with hearing loss, the ones that used hearing aids had better cognitive function over time than those that did not.

Interestingly, the report goes on to say that the isolation and depression associated with untreated hearing loss seemed to be the primary cause of the difference in the two groups (those that treated their hearing loss and those that did not). If the researchers controlled for that variable, both groups showed similar rates of cognitive decline.

Significant questions still remain (there was a very small sample size, for one), but in my mind, the evidence is building. The risks of ignoring your hearing loss are just too high, both in terms of quality of life today, but also as relates to mental acuity over time. Accepting your hearing loss and getting the care you need to treat it are important paths to sustained vibrancy.

If this is the case, changes in legislation are necessary, including the routine inclusion of hearing tests, aural rehabilitation and hearing devices in Medicare and other insurance plans. Screenings for hearing loss by primary care doctors should also be the norm. Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) has issued position papers addressing these issues head on. You can read these here and here.

Readers, do you think using hearing devices helps support better cognitive function over time?

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19 thoughts on “Is There Finally Proof That Wearing Hearing Devices Benefits Cognitive Function?

  1. Shari, excuse me if this is a duplicate. WordPress threw me off mid comment.

    I wrote about this study last fall when it came out. It’s a very interesting study, if not conclusive. My takeaway was that we should regard it as a wake-up call.
    http://katherinebouton.com/2015/11/11/new-study-suggests-hearing-aids-may-help-protect-brain-health/

    I also later wrote about the benefit (or backlash) of scare tactics in getting people to wear hearing aids. I’m on the fence about this one. Is the threat of eventual dementia more of an incentive to get hearing aids or just another thing to worry about and possibly deny?
    The immediate quality of life benefit of correcting hearing loss may be far more persuasive than a distant, if alarming, effect.
    http://katherinebouton.com/2016/01/29/scare-tactics-benefit-or-backfire/

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    • Thanks Katherine. I think both are important – the immediate benefits as well as the long-term ones. There is no denying that your brain changes with hearing loss, so taking steps now to minimize any negative changes is best, in my opinion.

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  2. Such an important topic, thanks for covering it. My daughter is studying for her Au.D. and I am more aware of this topic now. I have seen the isolation that hearing loss can bring. The lack of stimulation alone that one is used to receiving alone would impact cognitive function – or so I would think.

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  3. Yes! As an R.N. I can remember many instances where I put new batteries in the aides (family forgot), and you could just see and interest/memory/balance increase in the world around my patient. There were more attempts at interaction and the family was amazed. Family and patient had to be taught about care of the hearing aide and adaptation to sound etc.. But what also impressed me was the increase in balance-my personal opinion is that we also hear how we walk, what we walk on and it helps in the present and as we age. Being able to hear music and TV (with captions) was great. I’ve never done a formal study, just know what I have seen.

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  4. This is very interesting. You always get me started, Shari.

    When dealing with an aging population there would seem to be many contributing variables to the decline in cognitive function. Among them would be heredity, social isolation/involvement, mobility, level of physical activity, drug/alcohol use to name a few of the more obvious ones. It does seem clear that untreated hearing loss is a pretty good predictor for isolation which is a pretty good predictor for, at least, cognitive underdevelopment – if not decline.

    I can only speak with authority about my own situation. I am already aware that even with treated hearing loss I find that I actively avoid situations that under normal conditions (that is when I had normal hearing) I would happily have participated in them. Public meetings, lectures and readings, noisy restaurants, parties, music venues and family gatherings. These are the very building blocks of our social order and without them one can not but sink into emotional if not cognitive decline. I am constantly aware of this in my own life and it has to be true of others who are aware of a strong social need within themselves. There just isn’t an easy out at this time. It’s a daily struggle and it’s up to me. You can throw all the money in the world at treating hearing loss and still come up with something less than normal hearing. That’s the rub.

    Of course to the question: do hearing devices promote better cognitive function over time – the answer for me is yes. And, it also requires an active commitment to be involved, personally. The device won’t do it alone.

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  5. What about correlative factors between tinnitus and unaided hearing loss versus aided hearing loss and tinnitus? Is tinnitus taken into consideration especially concerning worsening hearing loss that it is commonly found? The tinnitus could have been a factor in the cognitive decline as well?

    Does the hearing loss itself without tinnitus cause cognitive decline? I think that there would still be cognitive decline like this study has indicated but I wonder if there is a difference…

    I think the one factor of the hearing loss community is that tinnitus is not really treated and may be more prevalent in children in mainstream and deaf schools and messing up their concentration, emotions and cognitive powers.

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  6. Then affordable hearing aids need to be available. I’m a senior living on Social Security and a small pension. My income is just above the level for medicaid, which I doubt pays for hearing aids anyway. I’ve been wearing hearing aids since I was 41 and was able to function fairly well in the workplace for many years. I retired voluntarily after my hearing became worse and I could not use voice phone anymore. The hearing aids I bought years ago when I had a good income are working only marginally. New ones are way out of my price range. I’ve tried to arrange my social life so that I see friends and family one on one or in small groups where I can read lips to fill in some of the sounds that I miss, which is all consonants–I hear only vowels. So maybe I’m a candidate for cognitive decline, but I would certainly be first in line to buy new hearing aids if I could afford them.

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  7. Thanks for covering this interesting topic. Going with the study reports, it can be assumed that finally there is proof that wearing hearing aids can benefit the cognitive function in human beings. This study report is very helpful for those workers who are affected by loud noises and sounds at their workplace. Several studies have found that people working around heavy machines are prone to hearing loss. However, many of them can’t afford hearing aids. This is where worker’s compensation claims come as a savior.
    Workers facing trouble in hearing should file a compensation claim as soon as possible, in order to get monetary benefits to buy hearing aids and other accessories. The findings of this study will help them prove their points in compensation claims.

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  8. Hearing loss itself causes tinnitus in many people, the brain is compensating for the absent sound by creating the illusion of sound. I have found my balance much worse with my increased hearing loss, I have a central vertigo which is not treatable and which has always been present. I think my balance is improved by wearing my HAs. At least I don’t seem to be falling as often. The idea that hearing aides are not provided as part of Medicare/Medicaid is in fathomable to me, and I am a provider, the isolation and debility of hearing loss is so great, and the danger of even crossing the road without hearing is huge. And unfortunately there is a great difference between inexpensive and more expensive HAs in terms of the subtleties of what they provide. However my otolaryngologist was careful to say always get both ears even if it means lesser HAs rather than one ear as the balance and tinnitus problems are compounded with a single HA. I am certain that cognition declines with hearing loss uncompensated with HAs, a brain unstimulated is bound to deteriorate. Incidentally Neurology is my field.

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  9. I have lived with hearing loss all my life, my single mother always insisted that I’m situated at the front to facilitate my hearing, at 51 today I take seat in the second row. Hearing loss weakens cognitive function, when hearing is impaired information intake is poor, so little or no information is stored, as a result retrieval and memory is deficient.

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