One of the most prevalent health conditions among older adults, age-related hearing loss, can lead to cognitive decline, social isolation and depression. However, new research from the University of Maryland Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences (HESP) shows that the use of hearing aids not only restores the capacity to hear, but can improve brain function and working memory.
The UMD-led research team monitored a group of first-time hearing aid users with mild-to-moderate hearing loss over a period of six months. The researchers used a variety of behavioral and cognitive tests designed to assess participants’ hearing as well as their working memory, attention and processing speed. They also measured electrical activity produced in response to speech sounds in the auditory cortex and midbrain.
At the end of the six months, participants showed improved memory, improved neural speech processing, and greater ease of listening as a result of the hearing aid use. Findings from the study were published recently in Clinical Neurophysiology and Neuropsychologia.
“Our results suggest that the benefits of auditory rehabilitation through the use of hearing aids may extend beyond better hearing and could include improved working memory and auditory brain function,” said HESP Assistant Professor Samira Anderson, who led the research team. “In effect, hearing aids can actually help reverse several of the major problems with communication that are common as we get older.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, as many as 28.8 million Americans could benefit from wearing hearing aids, but less than a third of that population actually uses them. Several barriers prevent more widespread use of hearing aids—namely, their high cost and the fact that many people find it difficult to adjust to wearing them. A growing body of evidence has demonstrated a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline in older adults. Aging and hearing loss can also lead to changes in the brain’s ability to efficiently process speech, leading to decreased ability to understand what others are saying, especially in noisy backgrounds.
The UMD researchers say the results of their study provide hope that hearing aid use can at least partially restore deficits in cognitive function and auditory brain function in older adults.
“We hope our findings underscore the need to not only make hearing aids more accessible and affordable for older adults, but also to improve fitting procedures to ensure that people continue to wear them and benefit from them,” Anderson said.
The research team is working on developing better procedures for fitting people with hearing aids for the first time. In addition to Anderson, the team includes post-doctoral fellow Hanin Karawani and UMD alumna Kimberly Jenkins from HESP.
The study was funded by the Hearing Health Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIDCD R21DC015843).