Hearing aids may protect deaf people from dementia, research suggests.
A study of more than 4,000 hearing-impaired people found those who wore the amplifiers performed better on memory and attention tests.
Hearing loss has previously been linked to a decline in ‘brain function, memory and an increased risk of dementia’, the UK researchers claim.
Being deaf is ‘socially isolating’, however, hearing aids help sufferers ‘experience sensory interactions’, an expert said.
This may enable hearing-impaired people to stay ‘engaged’, which could keep their brains sharp.
Hearing aids may protect deaf people from dementia, research suggests (stock image)
The study was carried out by the University of Exeter and King’s College London. It was led by Dr Anne Corbett, senior lecturer in dementia research at the Exeter.
‘Previous research has shown hearing loss is linked to a loss of brain function, memory and an increased risk of dementia,’ Dr Corbett said.
‘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.’
Dementia affects 850,000 people in the UK, Alzheimer’s Society statistics show.
And in the US, 5.7 million people live with the disease, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
Mild hearing loss occurs naturally with age, however, it is also associated with cognitive decline, the researchers wrote.
The rate of cognitive impairment could be slowed by simply wearing a hearing aid, however, studies investigating this have been small.
The researchers therefore looked at 25,000 people who participated in the 25-year PROTECT study. PROTECT analyses the health of cognitively-sound people aged 50 or over.
Of these, 4,372 self reported hearing loss. These participants were divided into two groups – the 1,557 who wore hearing aids and the 2,815 who did not.
Results revealed those who wore a hearing aid scored better on for their working memory and attention span.
Working memory is the ability to remember and use relevant information while in the middle of an activity, such as recalling the steps of a recipe while cooking.
WHAT IS DEMENTIA?
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders, that is, conditions affecting the brain.
There are many different types of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.
Some people may have a combination of types of dementia.
Regardless of which type is diagnosed, each person will experience their dementia in their own unique way.
Dementia is a global concern but it is most often seen in wealthier countries, where people are likely to live into very old age.
HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE AFFECTED?
The Alzheimer’s Society reports there are more than 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK today, of which more than 500,000 have Alzheimer’s.
It is estimated that the number of people living with dementia in the UK by 2025 will rise to over 1 million.
In the US, it’s estimated there are 5.5 million Alzheimer’s sufferers. A similar percentage rise is expected in the coming years.
As a person’s age increases, so does the risk of them developing dementia.
Rates of diagnosis are improving but many people with dementia are thought to still be undiagnosed.
IS THERE A CURE?
Currently there is no cure for dementia.
But new drugs can slow down its progression and the earlier it is spotted the more effective treatments are.
Source: Dementia UK
Those who wore a hearing aid also had faster reaction times, which is measure of concentration.
The results will be presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in LA.
The researchers wrote: ‘This warrants further exploration as an easily modifiable risk factor for cognitive impairment in older adults, and may suggest a new approach to reducing risk of dementia in the future.’
Another scientist, who was not involved in the study, believes hearing aids may help keep people sharp by enabling them to socialise.
Dr Martin Coath, who researches auditory neuroscience at Plymouth University, said: ‘Hearing loss is a type of social isolation as 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 whereas those who do not use a hearing aid may 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.’
This follows a surge of research that suggests ‘what is good for the heart is good for the brain’, such as eating well and not smoking.
Professor Clive Ballard, pro vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter’s medical school, said: ‘This research is part of an essential body of work to find out what really works to keep our brains healthy.
‘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.’
Both the researchers and other scientists stress further studies are required to uncover how hearing loss may be linked to dementia.
Dr Rebecca Dewey, a research fellow in neuroimaging at the University of Nottingham, said: ‘We don’t know much about whether this link between hearing aids and brain function is cause or effect.
‘Does hearing loss worsen the decline in brain function and does treating hearing loss slow or prevent this cognitive decline?
‘Or alternatively, are hearing loss and cognitive decline linked in some other way?There may be some other factor that causes or worsens both hearing and brain function.’
Dr Jana Voigt, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, added: ‘This is an exciting result that will need to be further tested in clinical trials.
‘If shown to work, encouraging people to wear hearing aids could be a simple but effective way of reducing dementia risk.’