Left untreated, hearing loss isn't a minor problem. Hearing aids can help you delay or minimize cognitive decline, dementia, depression, and possibly falls.
Hearing loss is common as we age but, left uncorrected, it isn’t a minor problem. Hearing trouble is closely linked with cognitive decline and dementia as well as loneliness.
The good news: Hearing aids may help you delay or minimize these risks of aging.
Hearing loss and memory
Plenty of evidence suggests that people with hearing loss are at greater risk of memory problems. In one large study of older men, the volunteers reported, at various times over eight years, whether they’d recently noticed any problems with their memory or thinking. It turned out that the greater your hearing loss, the more likely you were to be bothered by cognitive problems. Even a mild hearing loss made your risk jump 30 percent. Those with severe loss were 52 percent more likely to complain.
How do we know hearing aids help? The answer wasn’t clear in that study. But other research suggests the answer is yes. One example is a study that pooled results from more than 2,000 Americans age 50 and up. The volunteers took word recall tests every two years for up to 18 years. As expected, they forgot more words over time, but the rate of loss slowed after they acquired hearing aids.
Hearing loss and dementia
Forgetting words doesn’t mean you’ll get dementia. However, it can be an early sign of the disease, and hearing loss seems to be a factor. In a study of nearly 4,500 seniors without dementia, 16.3 percent of the volunteers with hearing loss developed the illness, compared to 12.1 percent of those with normal hearing. The group with hearing loss also developed dementia about two years earlier, on average.
Hearing aids may help here, too, according to an enormous study from the University of Michigan with data for nearly 115,000 Americans aged 66 years and older. Although they all had hearing loss, only 11 percent of the women and 13 percent of the men used hearing aids during the study, which covered their insurance claims from 2008 to 2016. The risk of developing dementia, depression, anxiety, or being injured in a fall were all dramatically lower among the hearing aid users. As the authors note, when it’s easier to hear conversation, you’re more likely to socialize and less likely to feel isolated or lonely. Other research has shown that isolation and loneliness can contribute to cognitive decline and even Alzheimer’s.
Hearing loss and falls
Bad hearing is linked to a greater chance of a serious fall, which can trigger a sad cascade of events at a time in your life when you could be happy with free time to pursue your interests. Older people are more likely to break their bones and need a stay in rehab or physical therapy. If you become frightened of another fall, you may stay home more often, skipping social events or trips to a swim or dance class. This leads to poorer health and strength, loneliness, and loss of independence.
Hearing aids can improve balance, and therefore may help prevent falls, too, as they did in the Michigan study.
Is your hearing declining?
You may think you hear well for your age, or well enough. But you may not realize how much your hearing is declined. The changes tend to come slowly, creeping up on you. Are you turning up the TV volume? Can you hear a dripping faucet? Do people tell you to speak more quietly in restaurants? Are you asking others to repeat themselves? Are you exhausted at family events, with many people talking at once? Any of these signs are a good reason to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor and for a hearing test. You can check your ability to understand speech in noisy situations with this online test.
Hearing aids are not covered by most health insurance plans or Medicare, though they are covered by the Veterans Administration. They’re not cheap, at more than $2,000 each or more than $4,000 a pair (with ordinary age-related hearing loss, you’ll have trouble with both ears and do much better with two aids). But you can get lower prices if you check online (you’ll need to see an audiologist for a hearing exam) or go to Costco, where you can get a hearing exam as well. And soon, you’ll be able to buy simple boosts for your hearing at a neighborhood drug store. Like reading glasses you buy over-the-counter, these devices won’t be customized to you but might work if you can’t afford more or have a very slight hearing loss.
January 17, 2020