Hearing aids may not just improve hearing and quality of life – new research suggests they could also help people live longer and reduce the risk of dementia. Several recent studies have found positive associations between hearing aid use and lower mortality rates and dementia risk.
Hearing Loss Linked to Higher Risk of Premature Death
A major new study published on January 3rd in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery analyzed data on over 154,000 adults aged 20 and older. It found that hearing aid use was associated with a 24% lower risk of premature death over the 9 year study period:
|Hearing Aid Use
|Risk of Premature Death
The researchers accounted for other factors that could impact mortality rates, like demographic variables and comorbid health conditions. They concluded that hearing aids themselves likely contribute to increased longevity.
Experts speculate hearing aids can improve lifespan by:
- Reducing the negative health effects linked to untreated hearing loss, like social isolation and cognitive decline
- Enabling better management of other chronic conditions that require good communication with doctors
- Decreasing the risk of accidents caused by untreated hearing difficulties
As one specialist emphasized, addressing hearing health “may actually save lives.”
Hearing Loss Associated with Higher Dementia Risk
Increasing evidence, including two recent studies, also demonstrates an association between hearing loss and heightened dementia risk.
One study published January 3rd in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society analyzed health records from over 44,000 older adults. It found that hearing aid use was linked to a 18% lower likelihood of a dementia diagnosis over 10 years compared to non-use.
Another study published December 14th in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease examined MRI brain scans of over 100 older adults. It found that hearing aid use appeared to slow down the rate of brain atrophy in key regions impacted by dementia.
Researchers theorize untreated hearing problems may contribute to dementia development through mechanisms like:
- Social isolation and loneliness
- Greater cognitive load from straining to hear
- Reduced cognitive reserve as parts of the brain compensate for hearing loss
Barriers to Hearing Aid Use Still Persist
Despite their potential benefits, hearing aids remain significantly underutilized – only around 20% of adults who could benefit from them actually use them.
Several barriers often prevent people from obtaining hearing aids:
- Most insurance plans don’t cover hearing aids, leaving consumers to foot the entire bill
- Costs often range from $1000-$4000 per hearing aid
- Vanity and ageism often deter people from wearing visible hearing aids
- Public figures openly discussing hearing loss, like activist Elise Zoli, are helping reduce stigma
Lack of Perceived Need
- Hearing loss symptoms often emerge slowly, delaying action
- People underestimate impacts of untreated hearing loss
- It can be difficult to get hearing testing and appointments with audiologists, especially for rural patients
Initiatives Underway to Improve Hearing Aid Access
Spurred by growing evidence on the wide-ranging benefits of treatment, initiatives are underway to tackle barriers to hearing aid access:
Bipartisan federal legislation called the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act was passed in 2017. It mandated that certain types of FDA-approved hearing aids be available over the counter without a prescription by 2020. While delays have occurred, experts expect OTC hearing aids to hit the market soon which could significantly lower costs.
An executive order signed Augist 2021 will require Medicare to start covering hearing care including hearing aids beginning in 2023. This could prompt more private insurers to expand coverage as well.
Public Awareness Campaigns
Nonprofits like the Hearing Loss Association of America sponsor awareness campaigns to educate the public on hearing health and ageist stigma. Celebrities like actor William Shatner openly discussing their hearing loss also help break down barriers.
Outlook Going Forward
Thanks to promising new studies and policy changes, hearing health experts are more optimistic than ever about increasing hearing aid use:
“We may soon see a world where hearing aids are available without the added difficulties of obtaining a hearing test, being referred to a hearing specialist for fitting and tuning, and contending with insurance coverage…Hopefully more people with hearing difficulties will seek help earlier and will stick with hearing aid use.” said Dr. Nicholas Reed, audiologist at Johns Hopkins University.
While barriers persist, powerful emerging evidence on the wide-ranging benefits of hearing aids for longevity, dementia risk, and more will hopefully compel action across all levels of society. Wider access paired with reduced stigma can help ensure hearing aids reach more of the millions needlessly suffering from untreated hearing loss.
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