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Why wearing a hearing aid like the Queen could cut the risk of developing dementia

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The Queen defies her 93 years in so many ways, but it seems her hearing may be one aspect of her health that is starting to show the effects of time.

On Sunday — the day before the Royal showdown with Prince Harry — she was pictured driving to church at Sandringham wearing a discreet red hearing aid in her right ear. She follows the lead of Prince Philip, who began wearing hearing aids in 2014 when he was the same age as the Queen is now.

The couple join two million others in the UK who currently wear hearing aids and, in fact, both appear to have encountered hearing issues later than most.

The Queen was pictured driving to church at Sandringham wearing a discreet red hearing aid in her right ear

A 2016 study in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery, found that two-thirds of adults over the age of 70 have hearing loss with the number increasing among the over 85s.

According to NHS guidelines, hearing aids are available to ‘anyone who needs them’, yet the standard option is a highly visible aid with a battery that sits behind the ear.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, experts believe the Queen has opted instead for a top-of-the-range aid that costs around £2,000.

‘It looks very much like a Signia Silk Nx hearing aid but I cannot confirm 100 per cent,’ says Mo Khan, deputy chief of audiology at London Hearing in Harley Street.

The Queen was pictured on Sunday driving to church at Sandringham with the discreet red hearing aid

The Queen was pictured on Sunday driving to church at Sandringham with the discreet red hearing aid 

If so, the Queen has got one of the world’s smallest hearing aids, which picks up sounds from a microphone inside the ear itself.

The in-the-ear [ITE] aids — which are often only available privately — are a discreet option that fit inside the ear canal completely or are only just visible. All hearing aids consist of a microphone to pick up sound, an amplifier to make the sound louder and a receiver to send the amplified sounds into your inner ear.

‘Behind-the-ear hearing aids have a receiver with microphones that sit round the back of the ear,’ says Francesca Oliver, an audiology specialist at the charity Action on Hearing Loss.

‘ITE hearing aids have a microphone built into the earpiece so it sits inside the ear canal and nothing goes behind the ear.’

Although smaller aids, including the Signia Silk Nx can be more discreet, Ms Oliver adds: ‘A smaller size does not necessarily mean better quality. ‘Smaller hearing aids cannot physically accommodate as many features as larger hearing aids so there may be some compromises.’

Hearing aids are often colour coded — red for the right and blue for the left. Photographs have only shown the Queen’s red ‘right-side’ aid, but it is likely that she has a blue ‘left-side’ one, too.

Most people have hearing loss in both ears, adds Ms Oliver. ‘Wearing two hearing aids allows you to tell where a sound is coming from and to hear speech in noise more clearly.’

Potential NHS moves to restrict patients to one instead of two hearing aids — and only for those with severe hearing loss — have largely been overturned thanks to campaigning. Patients in North Staffordshire, however, are subject to restrictions after hearing aid provisions were cut.

Yet many people are reluctant to use hearing aids. According to estimates, patients wait ten years before seeking advice from their doctor after first detecting signs of hearing loss.

‘There are some misconceptions about what is available and how much it costs,’ says Ms Oliver.

‘People might think that NHS hearing aids are vastly inferior to those available privately but this is not the case.’

Those who need hearing aids, should start as soon as possible.

‘People who struggle to hear the world around them can start to feel isolated,’ says Nick Clive, a consultant audiologist in Harley Street.

People with mild hearing loss are twice as likely to develop dementia, and those with moderate hearing loss have a three-fold risk increase, possibly as hearing loss can lead to social isolation — a known risk factor for dementia.

‘It could also be linked to auditory deprivation,’ says Mr Clive. ‘The brain is not being stimulated and this affects neural plasticity — the ability of nerves to carry messages.’

Even when patients begin to wear hearing aids, some are reluctant to continue, often because of pain or embarrassment, says Ms Oliver.

‘Common reasons that people stop wearing hearing aids are issues with physical discomfort, unnatural sound and difficulty handling and controlling them.

‘But these are all solvable problems with the help of an audiologist,’ she adds.


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