Could Hearing Aids Help Prevent Dementia?

Doctor reassuring older woman in modern clinic

In recent years, several studies have suggested a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline, or dementia.

Now, a study recently released adds to the evidence that older adults who wear hearing aids for a newly diagnosed hearing loss may have the advantage over their counterparts. This study from the University of Michigan found individuals with newly diagnosed hearing loss could have a lower risk of being diagnosed with dementia, depression or anxiety for the first time over the next three years, and a lower risk of suffering fall-related injuries, than those who leave their hearing loss uncorrected.

Unfortunately, only 12% of those who have a formal diagnosis of hearing loss actually get hearing aids, even when they have insurance coverage for at least part of the cost, the study shows. It also reveals gaps in hearing aid use among people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, geographic locations and genders.

The findings came from nearly 115,000 people over age 66 with hearing loss and insurance coverage through a Medicare HMO between 2008 and 2016, and they were published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Unlike traditional Medicare, Medicare HMOs typically cover some hearing aid costs for members diagnosed with hearing loss by an audiologist.

The researchers used anonymous insurance data to perform the study, and looked at the data for each person with hearing loss one year before their diagnosis, and three years after, so they could see only newly diagnosed dementia, depression, anxiety and fall injuries.

They intend to keep studying further data from this population, to see if the differences in health outcomes continue beyond three years.

  • The study showed that men with hearing loss were more likely to receive a hearing aid — 13.3% compared with 11.3% of women. 
  • Only 6.5% of people of Latino heritage received a hearing aid for their hearing loss, compared with 9.8% of African-Americans and 13.6% of whites.
  • Nearly 37% of people with hearing loss who lived in the north-central part of the country, as designated by the Census Bureau, used a hearing aid, compared with just 5.9% of people in the mountain states.

Differences in diagnosis

When the researchers looked at the path that patients who received hearing aids took over three years, compared with those who didn’t get the devices, significant differences emerged.

  • In all, the relative risk of being diagnosed with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, within three years of a hearing loss diagnosis was 18% lower for hearing aid users. 
  • The risk of being diagnosed with depression or anxiety by the end of three years was 11% lower for hearing aid users.
  • The risk of being treated for fall-related injuries was 13% lower.

The study also confirms previous studies’ findings that people with hearing loss had much higher rates of dementia, depression and fall injuries than the general population.

The reasons for this are complicated, and can include loss of social interaction, loss of independence, loss of balance and less stimulation to the brain. Some researchers also believe that the loss of nerve impulses from the ear to the brain, and loss of cognitive ability leading to dementia, could be part of the same aging process.

The study only included individuals who billed their insurance company for part of the cost of their hearing aid, so those who paid for their hearing aids out-of-pocket were not included.

Get a hearing test

Getting a diagnostic hearing test is the first step to addressing hearing loss. It’s the best way to understand why you’re having trouble hearing and find out what solutions are available to help you hear better. Described in laymen’s terms, during the hearing test, the audiologist will take a look at your ear canals, evaluate the movements of the eardrums, and examine your auditory pathway to learn the origin of your symptoms before offering recommendations for treatment.

Associated Audiologists use state-of-the-art diagnostic testing equipment. The results of the exam are displayed as an audiogram, which basically maps your hearing loss, showing where your hearing needs the most help.

If your hearing test shows that you have a hearing loss, the audiologist will use the information from the audiogram to recommend the best hearing aid technology for your type and degree of hearing loss. Remember, hearing loss is very individual—no two people have exactly the same hearing loss, so what might work best for a spouse or friend, may not work best for you.

Other important issues to discuss with your audiologist include cost and insurance benefits, if you have them.

Schedule an appointment with a doctoral-level audiologist today to determine whether you have a hearing loss, and could benefit from hearing aids.