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Is Your Hearing Loss Setting You Up for Dementia?

Do you have trouble hearing in a crowded restaurant? What if someone is facing away? Could your hearing loss increase the risk for dementia?

What’d you say? How many times have you had to ask someone to repeat themself? Be honest now! Do you have trouble hearing? If so, you are not alone. The NIH reports that 15% of Americans (37.5 million people over 18) “…report some trouble hearing.” Perhaps you think it’s just a minor problem, nothing to get excited about or spend money on. A new report in JAMA (Jan. 10, 2023) suggests that your hearing loss could be contributing to dementia.

Your Hearing Loss and Dementia:

The authors of the research letter in JAMA do not beat around the bush.

They state right at the very start of their study that:

“Hearing loss accounts for 8% of global dementia cases, rendering it the largest modifiable risk factor for dementia at a population level.”

These researchers go on to describe their study. Over 2,400 older citizens were assessed for hearing and cognition. Those with hearing loss were more likely to have a higher prevalence of dementia compared with people whose hearing is normal.

What About Hearing Aids for Your Hearing Loss?

The authors report that:

“Hearing aid use was associated with lower dementia prevalence, supporting public health action to improve hearing care access, including increased availability of affordable hearing aids…”

Given that there are no effective treatments for cognitive decline, addressing hearing loss would seem to be prudent public health policy. One reader shared this perspective:

Hearing Aids to Prevent Dementia:

What has been unclear until now is whether hearing aids would make a difference. A randomized controlled trial published in The Lancet this week shows that people at especially high risk for dementia benefit significantly if they get hearing aids.

The investigators randomly assigned 487 older people with untreated hearing loss to a control group that received health education (The Lancet, July 17, 2023). In addition, they assigned 490 people with hearing problems to have them corrected with hearing aids.

At the end of three years, people at the highest risk for cognitive decline had 48% less impairment if they wore hearing aids. This benefit didn’t show up in the entire group, just in the subset of people most at risk.

A Reader Praises the Power of Hearing Aids:

Q. You wrote recently that “seniors with hearing loss are more vulnerable to dementia.”

I am 75 years old. When my maternal grandmother seemed to be having cognitive problems in late middle age, her doctor prescribed hearing aids. She died at age 91 of a heart ailment with no appreciable cognitive loss.

My father’s sister, 97, has worn hearing aids for about ten years now. She is quite cogent.

I have worn hearing aids for several years. Although they aren’t perfect, hearing aids improve your quality of life. Not only do I hear better, but others aren’t frustrated by my asking them to repeat what they have said.

I wear in-ear aids because I feel more secure. Why not wear what works so that you will use them?

A. The article we cited notes that people using hearing aids are less likely to develop dementia. Thanks for sharing your story. Perhaps it will encourage others to explore whether hearing aids might help them.

Should You Buy an Inexpensive OTC Hearing Aid for Your Hearing Loss?

In case you missed it, the Food and Drug Administration recently issued a final rule making it easier to buy OTC hearing aids at an affordable price. Instead of spending $4,000 to $6,000, some of the newer OTC products cost less than $1,000.

Here is what the FDA wrote on November 10, 2022:

“The FDA’s final rule: Establishing Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids, issued on August 17, 2022, to improve access to safe, effective, and affordable hearing aids for millions of Americans is now in effect. This action enables consumers 18 years of age and older with perceived mild to moderate hearing loss to purchase hearing aids directly from stores or online retailers without the need for a medical exam, prescription, or a fitting adjustment by an audiologist.”

We are usually enthusiastic about getting helpful tools into the hands of consumers. We have certainly supported the idea of affordable hearing aids to help people with mild to moderate hearing loss. But there is a catch.

We wrote enthusiastically about this topic and were criticized by a lot of folks. That forced us to ask:

What’s Wrong with OTC Hearing Aids?

If you click on this link, you will learn about the downside of inexpensive hearing aids that do not work very well for your hearing loss. There are some other drawbacks. Who will adjust them for the quirks of your hearing loss? If you are disappointed with the results, will you give up and abandon the idea of overcoming your hearing loss? Will that increase your risk for dementia later in life?

In the NIH report on “Quick Statistics About Hearing” we are told that:

“Among adults aged 70 and older with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than one in three (30 percent) has ever used them. Even fewer adults aged 20 to 69 (approximately 16 percent) who could benefit from wearing hearing aids have ever used them.”

Perhaps it is time to come to terms with your hearing loss. We make no recommendations on OTC hearing Aids, but the National Council on Aging (NCO) offers this evaluation:

The 6 Best Over-the-Counter (OTC) Hearing Aids of 2023

Consumer Reports (Oct. 18, 2022) offers this overview:

What to Know About Eargo, Jabra, Lexie, Sony, and Other Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids
The features they offer, where you can buy them, how much they’ll cost you, and more

Final Words:

If you have already purchased hearing aids to overcome your hearing loss, please share your experience in the comment section below. If one brand has been especially helpful for you, we would love to learn about it. Your story could help someone else avoid cognitive decline associated with hearing problems.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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