Hearing loss is often considered a “normal” part of the human aging process, yet brushing over its harmful effects comes with risks. The repercussions of hearing loss on the aging population are becoming more and more clear, and now there’s added clinical research to suggest there are preventative measures to help slow down its progression through early intervention for seniors with hearing loss.
A recent JAMA study has found that hearing aids have been found to reduce the risk for cognitive decline and dementia, and even improve short-term cognitive function in individuals with hearing loss.
A meta-analysis of 31 studies with 137,484 participants looked at the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline over a range of two to 25 years. The findings revealed that people with hearing loss who wore devices to help performed three percent better on cognitive scores in the short term.
Dr. Diana Sowers, Au.D, a clinical audiologist working with Eversound weighed in on what this study means for our aging population and delivers some hope about its findings. The data that was most concerning to her was how the incidence of dementia is expected to triple by 2050, with 150 million cases worldwide, resulting in up to 50 billion dollars in economic losses by 2030 alone.
Dr. Sowers says there are some positive aspects to point out, like how the use of hearing aids was associated with a 19% reduction in long-term cognitive decline. When it comes to cognitive decline, preventing progression is important and the benefits of hearing aids tend to accrue over time. Patients who already started with mild cognitive impairment (“early dementia”) in the analysis also benefited from the use of hearing aids, showing the same 20% lower risk of progressing to dementia.
This new data shows us it’s never too late to start wearing hearing aids. It helps to preserve the cognition you still have. This means if we can catch these patients early enough, things will slow down. I tell patients even at a mild or moderate hearing loss that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
How Brain Atrophy Works: Cognitive Load vs. Sensory Deprivation
Dr. Sowers explains how seniors with daily challenges have higher amounts of brain power needed to complete any given task. Those with hearing loss are performing “effortful” listening—working incredibly hard to hear and process missing bits of information. This is called cognitive load. When you’re walking or moving around, your brain picks up subtle cues about balance and your environment through your ears. Hearing loss mutes those signals. As a result, your brain loses those connections and starts to shrink, decreasing its ability to function in normal, healthy ways.
Then there is sensory deprivation. This means less stimulus to the brain creates actual physical changes including brain shrinkage. This affects the auditory cortex of those with hearing loss, but also the overall brain size itself, especially in the temporal lobe area. This part of the brain is used for processing hearing and also short-term memory recall.
Dr. Sowers says if you stimulate that pathway, it will feed the relationship between the ear and the brain. If you don’t feed your brain, that deprivation will cause cognitive decline, physical change, and actual shrinkage as brain atrophy sets in. If hearing loss is treated, the person can work smarter and decrease that cognitive load with less effort.
Barriers to Good Hearing Health
Seniors seldom neglect their appointments with their cardiologists, physical therapists, and primary care doctor, but hearing health tends to get placed on the back burner, especially in senior living communities.
The other issue to contend with is as the adult population is growing older, the number of professionals providing hearing care services is not growing alongside it. There is a hearing healthcare shortage creating a bottleneck effect of prolonged wait times. Even if a resident does have an appointment, those in long-term senior living communities often need to rely on outside family members for transportation and the overall management of their visits, which can be burdensome to arrange.
Furthermore, hearing health is not a one-stop fix. A senior can’t simply get an auditory test and a hearing aid on the same day. There are appointments to be tested, another appointment to get fitted, and follow-up care and tests to make sure they are working properly. It’s for these reasons and more that untreated hearing loss is considered the silent epidemic.
Eversound can help your residents live life at full volume
When hearing loss is present it’s hard to be social. Residents often get reclusive when they can’t hear what’s going on. They stay in their rooms, take fewer steps, and are less active and engaged in group settings. Since preventative measures for hearing loss also require socialization, Eversound’s wireless headphone system helps those who may not be ready to take the next step with hearing aids or even when their hearing aids need an extra boost in noisy events. By using the Eversound wireless headphones, it helps restore some of that desire for social interaction and connection by making it easier for people to better participate in daily life activities and understand their surroundings.
One of the things that drew me to work with Eversound was their mission to provide hearing solutions that empower seniors with technology to live life at full volume. With the Eversound wireless headphone system, residents can be more present and engaged, stimulating areas of the brain that are vulnerable to atrophy when hearing loss is present.
Diana Sowers, AuD, Clinical Audiologist
I have a resident who loved coming to activities, but would get frustrated easily because she couldn’t hear or follow directions. She also desperately wants to talk to others, but again, couldn’t hear. She would wear her hearing aids but she said they ‘just didn’t work right’. On a whim, I tried the Eversound headphones. She almost started crying! I asked what was wrong. She said “I never thought I would hear like this ever again’, and we hugged. Now, she comes to activities, points to her head, I go get the headphones and she stays and participates the whole time.
Chelsea Gendron, Activities Director, Spring Arbor of Fredricksburg.