A recent meta-analysis from JAMA Neurology may have found a way to mitigate cognitive decline for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s using hearing aids and cochlear implants.
The analysis found that the use of these devices may reduce subsequent cognitive decline in individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s by as much as 19%.
The theory is that if an individual is allocating a large number of cognitive resources to trying to interpret sounds, they have fewer resources available for overall functioning and other cognitive tasks. If the hearing is improved, those cognitive resources can then be redirected back to other cognitive tasks.
Dennis Thomas, a local hearing instrument specialist, has experienced this phenomenon firsthand in his line of work.
Thomas is the president of Beltone Central California and is nationally board certified in hearing instrument sciences. It is his goal to provide the very best in hearing health care by adhering to a strict code of ethics that is seen throughout all Beltone Central California offices.
After working in the hearing industry for close to 39 years, Thomas has treated numerous patients and provided them with hearing aids. Many of these patients are older individuals, some of which show signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
In his experience, auditory deprivation caused by hearing loss can be a contributing factor to cognitive decline in patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s. This deprivation forces the other senses to compensate for the weakened sense and causes strain on the brain and can lead to social isolation, which perpetuates cognitive decline even more.
“We don’t hear with our ears, we hear with our brain. If the ear doesn’t send the right signal to the brain, it can forget to interpret speech,” said Thomas. “If it’s not stimulated properly, you can lose your ability to understand speech faster.”
Thomas recalls a particular visit four years ago when a patient with advanced Alzheimer’s came to Beltone with his wife for treatment. With the husband not very responsive and experiencing significant hearing loss, a basic hearing test that typically takes several minutes took a half hour. Thomas gave the patient hearing aids to try for a week, in hopes that something would change.
A week later the patient’s wife came back to share the news of her husband’s improvement and express her gratitude toward Thomas.
“She came back a week later in tears saying, ‘Thank you so much, you brought my husband back. He’s not all the way back but at least now we can have a conversation,” said Thomas.
For Thomas, the chance to bridge that gap in communication for patients and their loved ones is priceless, especially for those experiencing cognitive decline.
Thomas encourages those experiencing hearing problems to get checked as soon as possible because if the auditory deprivation is caught early, it is easier to maintain at a higher level. He also advises that those with hearing aids remain consistent with their usage of the devices and to make sure they fit properly.
“The key thing is catching the problem early,” said Thomas. “If patients are wearing hearing aids consistently, that auditory deprivation can slow down when the hearing aids properly fit, but the patient has to be motivated to wear them every day.”
Additionally, based on a study from National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, hearing loss can lead to social isolation and loneliness, which is hypothesized to be a contributing factor in cognitive decline for patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
This study found that social isolation was associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia. Using hearing aids may lessen cognitive impairment by lessening a person’s social isolation, fitting them with the ability to stay engaged and active with their peers and surroundings.
Based on the findings of both studies researchers call for further research into hearing loss and its association with social isolation and the cognitive benefit of hearing restorative devices.