As people get older it is generally expected that cognition declines, and whilst a hearing aid to support hearing loss likely won’t prevent dementia, a recent study conducted by Associate Professor Julia Sarant has shown that it may assist in delaying its onset. The study found that if people with hearing loss were treated early, hearing aids could potentially delay dementia having a huge impact on individuals and families.

Age-related hearing loss is very common in older adults from about 50 years of age and is often associated with other health problems including poorer physical health, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and isolation. Despite hearing loss being very common and having significant impact on quality of life, hearing loss is undertreated.

Hearing aids have long been used to help people who have hearing loss to hear better. However of the many people who require a hearing aid, only a small percentage actually have or use them correctly. The ongoing stigma of needing a hearing aid, the costs associated with purchasing and maintaining hearing aids, and owners accidently losing or misplacing them are all barriers to their usage. 

A/Prof Sarant explains “deafness is a hidden disability; many people can cope socially for many years by ‘smiling and nodding’ or ‘dominating conversations’ to hide gradual hearing deterioration”. She adds that without the use of hearing aids, a person’s hearing often continues to deteriorate further.

Background of the study

This current research included 99 adults aged 60–84 years, with hearing loss and no previously diagnosed or suspected cognitive impairment. Other health outcomes were also recorded such as medical history, quality of life, and anxiety and depression. Participants were first-time users of hearing aids and were assessed before the hearing aid was fitted and also again at 18 months after fitting.

What the study found

The results demonstrated a significant improvement in cognition over the 18 months of hearing aid use.

Managing hearing loss early can help:

  • Maintain and increase social connections
  • Increase quality of life
  • Assist in your work life
  • Decrease cognitive decline
  • Can also ensure that people enjoy a good quality of life for longer

When undertaking the research, the researchers expected that although participants’ cognition may have remained stable; they were not expecting that people could get better. Overall, women in this study had better results as they were more compliant with hearing aid use.

Future directions

This study will assist individuals to take control and ownership of their health and be able to make positive decisions for themselves. The initial results discussed are from a much larger research project; the study is running for five years until the end of 2021 and will continue to follow participants’ journey of hearing aid use and the effect this can have on cognition in older adults. Researchers are hoping that the preliminary results presented here will continue to run a similar trajectory.

For people who need hearing aids, it is best to establish a routine to look after them:

Home setting:

  • Having a small bowl/dish in a convenient location to place into before bed, shower etc.
  • If they are placed in consistent locations, hearing aids will be easier to find for re-application

Care or Hospital setting:

  • If possible ensure that family members are aware the hearing aids have been bought into a care facility (hearing aids can easily get lost, for example when sheets are being changed)
  • Label your hearing aids
  • Have a safe place to put them every night that be easily accessed in the morning and ensure the container is labelled
  • Ensure staff are aware
  • By ensuring that people in care have their hearings aids safe and readily accessible, it can assist individuals in feeling less confused, less agitated, and more connected

Why should you use a hearing aid?

  • To be more connected to family, friends and your community
  • To be able to better communicate and have better relations with family and loved ones
  • Decrease spousal and relationship stressors
  • For women, who are generally more social than men, hearing aids provide an important tool to ensure communication continues with peers. ​

What are A/Prof Sarant’s top tips to take care of our hearing as we age?

  • Have your hearing tested regularly from middle age (approximately 50 years old). If problems with hearing are detected, they can then be treated early
  • Use hearing aids if recommended as directed by your doctor or specialist
  • Use hearing aids as often as possible

As our population continues to enjoy living to a greater age, the findings from this study suggest that the onset of dementia may be delayed through prompt identification and appropriate management of hearing loss.

Written by Rebecca Madill – Research Associate for the Melbourne Academic Centre for Health

Features Associate Professor Julia Sarant –  Audiologist and Senior Research Fellow, Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, University of Melbourne and member of the MACH Care of the Ageing subcommittee.

This study is continuing to recruit participants and will follow cognition over a longer period of time with larger numbers. If you’re interested in taking part, please get in touch with the University of Melbourne Audiology Clinic – contact details are on their website

For more information about this study please navigate to the Pursuit article