Almost 1 in 4 people in the United States aged 65–74 have disabling hearing loss. In people over 75, the figure is 1 in 2.
Nonetheless, many people who would benefit from wearing a hearing aid do not wear them.
Experts have linked hearing loss to an increased likelihood of dementia, depression and anxiety, walking problems, and falling.
Now, a study in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society finds that using a hearing device makes these problems significantly less likely to occur.
Study lead Elham Mahmoudi, Ph.D., from the University of Michigan, explains:
“We already know that people with hearing loss have more adverse health events and more co-existing conditions, but this study allows us to see the effects of an intervention and look for associations between hearing aids and health outcomes.”
She continues, “Though hearing aids can’t be said to prevent these conditions, a delay in the onset of dementia, depression and anxiety, and the risk of serious falls could be significant both for the patient and for the costs to the Medicare system.”
Looking into the data
The study, carried out at the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, looked at data from nearly 115,000 individuals who were over 66 years old and had hearing loss.
All the participants also had insurance through a Medicare Health Maintenance Organization (HMO).
The researchers chose Medicare HMOs because, unlike standard Medicare, they often cover hearing aid costs for members who have received a diagnosis with hearing loss from an audiologist.
The scientists tracked the participants’ health from 1 year before their diagnosis to 3 years afterward. This allowed researchers to pinpoint any new diagnoses of dementia, depression, anxiety, or fall injuries.
The researchers noted significant differences between the outcomes of those with hearing loss who did wear a hearing aid compared with those who did not.
Wearing a hearing aid reduced:
• the relative risk of being diagnosed with dementia — including Alzheimer’s — by 18%
• the relative risk of being diagnosed with depression or anxiety by 11%
• the relative risk of fall-related injuries by 13%
Previous research has looked into the links between hearing loss and dementia and mental health conditions. Some experts believe that social isolation, which sometimes comes with hearing loss, might result in less stimulation for the brain and, ultimately, cognitive decline.
Others have suggested that the deterioration of nerve impulses in the ear may be an indicator of a wider neural degeneration already underway.
Who gets a hearing aid?
The secondary goal of the study was to determine the adoption rate of hearing devices among different demographic groups.
• 13.3% of men with hearing loss in the United States are likely to acquire a hearing aid, as opposed to 11.3% of women with hearing loss.
• 13.6% of white participants with hearing loss received hearing aids, 9.8% of African Americans, and 6.5% of people with Latino heritage.
Clear as a bell
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved over-the-counter hearing aids for sale in 2020 in an effort to make hearing aids more widely available to people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss.
For older people with hearing loss, though, the study documents the value of acquiring a hearing aid. Mahmoudi says:
“Correcting hearing loss is an intervention that has evidence behind it, and we hope our research will help clinicians and people with hearing loss understand the potential association between getting a hearing aid and other aspects of their health.”