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Wearing hearing aid may help protect brain in later life

A new study has concluded that people who wear a hearing aid for age-related hearing problems maintain better brain function than those who do not – and they could be reducing the risk of dementia as well.

This latest research, conducted by the University of Exeter and King’s College London in the PROTECT online study of 25,000 people aged 50 or over and presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles this week, has concluded that people who wear a hearing aid for age-related hearing problems maintain better brain function over time than those who do not.

The findings provide early evidence that encouraging people to wear an effective hearing aid may help to protect their brains and reduce the risk of dementia.

It builds on important research in recent years pulled together by the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care, through which hearing loss emerged as an important risk factor for dementia. This latest research now suggests that wearing a hearing aid may mitigate that risk.

BSHAA president Andrew Coulter has welcomed the new research findings. He said: “This is the latest study in a growing body of evidence that points to an important truth: the risk of dementia can be significantly reduced if people take good care of their hearing. Getting your hearing tested regularly is an easy way that we can invest in our long-term health, just like joining a gym or taking other steps towards a healthier lifestyle. If hearing technology is required, it can keep you connected to the world around you, as well as maintaining better brain function and potentially reducing the risk of dementia.”

In the research, both groups undertook annual cognitive tests over two years. After that time, the group who wore hearing aids performed better in measures assessing working memory and aspects of attention than those who did not. On one attention measure, people who wore hearing aids showed faster reaction times – in everyday terms, this is a reflection of concentration, for example, ‘straining to hear a sound’, ‘peering closely at an object of great interest’, ‘listening intently to someone speaking’.

PROTECT lead Dr Anne Corbett, from the University of Exeter (pictured above with the research poster at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference) said: “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.”

Professor Clive Ballard, of the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “We know that we could reduce dementia risk by a third if we all took action from mid life. 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.”

The research poster presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference is entitled ‘Use of Hearing Aids in Older Adults with Hearing Loss Is Associated with Improved Cognitive Trajectory’.

Wearing hearing aid may help protect brain in later life