Wearing a hearing aid may prevent dementia, promote mental sharpness in older adults

EXETER, England — Mental decline as we age is just as serious an issue, if not more, than physical decline. Staying sharp, mindful, and alert in our later years is easier said than done, but an interesting study conducted at The University of Exeter and King’s College London finds that wearing a hearing aid may help protect brain function in older adults.

Researchers say that individuals who wear a hearing aid for age-related hearing issues tend to maintain superior brain functioning and cognition over time compared to those who don’t. These findings build off of recent research over the past few years that identified hearing loss as a significant risk factor associated with dementia; now it appears that wearing a hearing aid can help temper that risk.

The research was performed as part of PROTECT, an online study of 50,000 people over the age of 50.

Participants were separated into two groups, one group that wore hearing aids for age-related hearing problems, and one group that did not. Then, both groups took annual cognitive tests over the course of two years.

The hearing aid group performed better on working memory and attention tasks. Participants wearing hearing aids also exhibited faster everyday reaction times, considered an accurate indicator of concentration skills. For example, those in the hearing aid group were more responsive and attentive to people and objects of interest.

“Previous research has shown that hearing loss is linked to a loss of brain function, memory and an increased risk of dementia. 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. We now need more research and a clinical trial to test this and perhaps feed into policy to help keep people healthy in later life,” explains PROTECT lead Dr. Anne Corbett in a release.

Researchers say their findings are just one piece of a complicated puzzle when it comes to staying mentally sharp in old age, but they are nonetheless excited by their discovery and its potential to help people in the future.

“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,” comments Clive Ballard, a professor at the University of Exeter Medical School.

The study was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles.