Wearing a hearing aid may help protect brain in later life

Author: Ingrid Torjesen
Wearing a hearing aid may help protect brain in later life

People who wear a hearing aid for age-related hearing problems maintain better brain function over time than those who do not, suggest a study conducted by the University of Exeter and King's College London, and presented in a poster at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Los Angeles.

Previous research has suggested that hearing loss is an important risk factor for dementia, and now the PROTECT online study suggests that wearing a hearing aid may mitigate that risk.

The study included 25,000 people aged 50 or over who undertook annual cognitive tests over two years. The participants were split into two groups – one group wore hearing aids and the other did not. After two years, people in the group who wore hearing aids performed better in measures assessing working memory and aspects of attention than those who did not wear them. On one measure, people who wore hearing aids showed faster reaction times - in everyday terms, this is a reflection of concentration, for example, “straining to hear a sound”, “peering closely at an object of great interest”, or “listening intently to someone speaking”.

PROTECT lead Dr Anne Corbett, from the University of Exeter, said: "Previous research has shown that hearing loss is linked to a loss of brain function, memory and an increased risk of dementia. Our work is one of the largest studies to look at the impact of wearing a hearing aid, and suggests that wearing a hearing aid could actually protect the brain. We now need more research and a clinical trial to test this and perhaps feed into policy to help keep people healthy in later life."

Professor Clive Ballard, of the University of Exeter Medical School, said: "This is an early finding and needs more investigation, yet it has exciting potential. The message here is that if you're advised you need a hearing aid, find one that works for you. At the very least it will improve your hearing and it could help keep your brain sharp too."

Commenting on the findings Dr Jana Voigt, head of research, Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “This large-scale study indicates that wearing hearing aids could boost aspects of memory and attention in healthy older people, but it remains to be seen whether this can reduce the risk of developing dementia. This is an exciting result that will need to be further tested in clinical trials, and if shown to work, encouraging people to wear hearing aids could be a simple but effective way of reducing dementia risk.”

Dr Martin Coath, associate lecturer, Plymouth University, said: “Hearing loss is a type of social isolation as, for example, it can make following conversations in a noisy room a struggle. Those with hearing issues who choose to use high-quality hearing aids are likely to continue to enjoy social experiences and conversations whereas those who do not use a hearing aid may choose to experience fewer social and sensory interactions as they are more challenging. Therefore, one possible reason why this early stage study sees a link between hearing aid use and better brain function is that those using a hearing aid are staying engaged and actively interested in all manner of sensory and social experiences. It may be that when the full study is published the data will show that more or less anything you can do to support continued physical and intellectual activity with age will have some measurable protective effect on brain function.”