Hearing Aids to Improve Memory and Brain Function in Older Adults

By age 40, approximately 1 in 10 adults will experience some form of hearing loss. It happens gradually and slowly, according to many audiologists. And as it gets worse, most people are often in denial. By the time someone is finally convinced that they have a hearing problem, age-related memory loss might have already set in.

Restoring hearing with hearing aids can effectively help slow down cognitive decline, as suggested by modern research. In a study that analyzed 2,000 older adults in the United States both before and after having started using hearing aids, researchers found that the rate of cognitive decline was slowed by about 75% following the adoption of hearing aids.

According to Asri Maharani, a researcher with the University of Manchester who works in the division of experimental psychology and neuroscience, this is a surprising result. The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Assessing cognition over time can be quite difficult, but the researchers performed a battery of face-to-face tests with those that participated in the study. This was done every 2 years from 1996 to 2014. One of the tests that were used to assess the memory of the participants was to recall a list of ten words, both right after the words having been read aloud and then once more after the participants had been distracted by various other tasks.

A slower rate of decline equates to remembering less than one more word on the 10-word recall test. Even though it is small, it is a measurable effect. This adds to the evidence that cognitive decline and hearing loss are very strongly linked. Researchers claim that stimulating your ears effectively stimulates the nerves that are in charge of stimulating your brain.

Hearing aids and cognitive disorders

For an older adult, getting hearing aids is like receiving their ears back. It gives seniors’ brains the opportunity to make sense of what they are hearing. Therefore, this helps them stay more socially engaged and stimulated. It’s all that difficult to understand. The elderly often suffer from isolation because they are incapable of understanding what those around them are saying. This type of solitude eventually leads to cognitive disorders as humans are known to be social animals.

The need to be part of a group never disappears, despite whatever this new generation of people who mostly lead their lives online tend to think. Loneliness can take a toll on someone’s brain function and memory, and hearing loss does just that.

People with hearing loss notice that their loved ones withdraw from the conversation and will avoid going to social or family functions like they were in the habit of doing before. However, not many people want to wear a hearing aid — both because it is often a gadget that’s anything but visually appealing and because fiddling with it can usually prove to be too complicated for a senior.

No matter the amount of convincing that needs to be done, especially for a senior that doesn’t want to look old, the truth is that hearing aids these days are a lot less noticeable compared to how they used to be and they can be covered up by hair, after all.

The price point of some hearing aids can be another obstacle. Some of the best hearing aids developed today can cost up to $4,500 and even more. It’s true that less expensive options are available, but it is known that insurance plans do not typically cover the entire cost. Some plans do offer benefits for hearing aids, but generally, Medicare does not.

Slowing cognitive decline

There is new evidence that shows that restoring vision by, for example, having cataract surgery can slow cognitive decline, as well. A companion study was carried out by the same researches and it was published in the journal PLOS One. The study evaluated the outcome of about 2,000 older adults that had had cataract surgery. The participants were given periodic cognitive assignments as a request of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, carried out similarly to the United States Health and Retirement Survey.

This study found that the rate of cognitive decline is slowed by 50% following cataract surgery. Restoring good vision can’t entirely eliminate cognitive decline, but it significantly slows down the process.