Groundbreaking research proves use of hearing aids reduces risk of cognitive decline

Contributed by | Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

For years, researchers have eyed the correlation between hearing and brain health. It has been long suspected that the use of hearing aids, or the lack thereof, could be a significant factor in cognition, especially for older people. And now, for the first time, researchers have found definitive proof that the use of hearing aids actually reduces the risk of cognitive decline.

Studying the effects of brain aging

The long term study, done at the University of Bordeaux, France, was a part of the Personnes Agees, aka PAQUID, which was created to look at the overall effects of brain aging. The study looked at 3670 adults age 65 and over for a 25-year period. Amazingly, researchers found that those who used hearing aids had no greater risk of cognitive decline than those with normal hearing.

In contrast, during the 25 year study those with untreated hearing loss had significantly lower baseline scores on the Mini-Mental State Examination, a widely used test of cognitive function. The astounding results of the study have the not only have potential to revolutionize the hearing care industry, but to encourage even more people to seek treatment for their hearing loss.

Results show importance of early hearing loss treatment

oticon hearing aids
Oticon's Alta2 hearing aids
utilize BrainHearing technology,
providing clear sound and 

The results of the study were just published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, but given that Oticon has been focusing on their BrainHearing™ technology for the past 20 years, it was only appropriate that the lead author of the study, Professor Amieva of the Department of Neuropsychology and Epidemiology of Aging at the University of Bordeaux, France, chose to share the early findings of the study back in 2014 at OtiCongress, a knowledge-sharing event that explored cognitive health and the benefits of Oticon’s cutting edge technology.

Oticon has long been aware that hearing aids are not just simply about amplification and that not all devices are created the same. For 20 years, Oticon has been very active in the area of researching the relationship between hearing aid amplification characteristics and cognitive processes. Based on the fact that you hear with your brain, not your ears, they have been able to develop technology that has been on the leading edge of this latest research. And now, with this new development, they are poised and ready to help even more people maintain cognitive health and lead healthy, active lives.

Your brain is not only unique to you; it is a crucial part of hearing. That means you hear and interpret sounds differently than anyone else. Knowing that each brain is as unique as a fingerprint, Oticon developed technology that is uniquely adaptable to each individual. The brain uses the ears to orient itself and be aware of what is happening in the environment, and to make sense of sounds that it hears. That is why cognition is a crucial part of the hearing mechanism; without understanding, hearing means nothing. Oticon’s BrainHearing technology is revolutionary in that it not only helps both ears to work together, but it recognizes and preserves natural speech characteristics and separates speech from background noise  to allow only the important sounds to get through.

Understanding the benefits of hearing aids

The benefits of hearing technology on cognition cannot be emphasized enough. Past studies have shown that even early stages of hearing loss are linked to cognitive decline. The theory is that when the brain’s ability to process sound is compromised, a person’s ability to understand speech declines. The hearing areas of the brain become weaker, and the areas of the brain that are necessary for higher level thinking then attempt to compensate for the weaker areas. When they step in and try to take over for hearing, they are unavailable to do their primary cognitive jobs (thinking, problem solving, reasoning, etc.).

This brain reorganization could explain why age-related hearing loss is so strongly correlated with dementia, and why it should be taken seriously. Even in the early stages of hearing loss, the brain begins to reorganize. Knowing this, Oticon has been focused on leading the charge in the emphasis on hearing as it relates to brain health. Don Schum, the Vice President for Audiology & Professional Relations for Oticon, Inc. and a member of the Board of Directors of the Eriksholm Research Center, knows just how important hearing is to cognitive health. “It’s been known for several years that there is a correlation between the presence of hearing loss and accelerated cognitive decline in elderly adults, and that the rate at which that happens appears to be faster among those with hearing loss. That has been demonstrated by Frank Lin and other researchers; what had not been established yet is the mechanism. What causes it to happen?”

For years, a common theory among the research community has been that the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline is related to a loss of socialization. People with hearing loss are more likely to avoid social situations out of frustration or embarrassment. But research shows that being in social situations is one of the best things to do to preserve cognitive function.

Schum agrees. “This is the first time there is evidence that people who have hearing loss, but use hearing aids are no more at risk of cognitive decline than people with normal hearing. The hearing aids act as a protective mechanism against a more accelerated loss of cognition, so that cements the hypothesis that the relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline is related to loss of socialization. Since hearing aids allow for greater socialization, allowing people to stay engaged and active, people with hearing devices are using the cognitive system very actively.”

Research finds hearing is crucial to brain health

The idea of brain health is certainly a hot topic right now, especially among older people who may be seeing friends or family members developing dementia or Alzheimer’s, and who are concerned about their own brain health. The popularity of brain-challenging games such Sudoku and the rise of programs like Lumosity to promote brain health show that the concern is growing. That’s all well and good, but the very best thing you can do to maintain cognitive health is to stay socially active.

“One of the most stimulating things you can do is go to a party,” said Schum. “The complexity of the environment and having conversations with multiple people is very healthy for the brain. If a person is hesitant to do that because they struggle with hearing loss and they could do better if they wore amplification, then they should be using amplification.”

The results of the study have the potential to change the way people view the use of hearing aids, and to get more people to take action when it comes to hearing health.

“Now it’s no longer just about allowing them to hear, in the here and now, but about long term brain health. We can let people know that there can be a positive impact on long term brain health by correcting your hearing," Schum said.

Because of their hard work over the last 20 years, Oticon is ready to address brain health and hearing. Schum is excited about what the future holds. “The study results represent an opportunity for us to get more people to do something positive about their hearing. That is probably the most important thing to come out of this study. If we can get more potential users to take action, I think we should.”

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