A new study, “The benefit of amplification on auditory working memory function in middle-aged and young-older hearing impaired adults,” by Jamie Desjardins, PhD, an assistant professor in the Speech-Language Pathology Program at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), found that hearing aids improve brain function in mature adults with hearing loss.
Previous studies have shown that untreated hearing loss is associated with serious emotional, medical, and social consequences, including unnatural mental decline and dementia. These disabilities often result in reduced job performance, lower income, and a generally diminished quality of life. Declining cognitive function is also associated with a loss of auditory working memory, the ability to pay attention to conversations in noisy environments. Working memory is important because it is critical for understanding speech.
Sustained hearing loss causes problems because the brain must allocate extra resources to the task of understanding speech. When this occurs, other areas of the brain associated with cognitive functions are “starved”.
As Desjardins explained, “If you have some hearing impairment and you’re not using hearing aids, maybe you can figure out what the person has said, but that comes with a cost. You may actually be using the majority of your cognitive resources, your brain power, in order to figure out that message.”
Purpose Of The UTEP Study
As we age, our thinking and memory skills naturally decline. The purpose of the present study was to assess the effect of hearing aid use on the auditory working memories of middle-aged and young-older adults with mild to moderate sensorineural hearing loss. Sensorineural Hearing loss is caused by damage to the inner ear or the nerve from the ear to the brain, and isn’t typically correctable with surgery. The study included 24 adults in their 50s and 60s with bilateral (involving both ears) hearing loss who had never before used hearing aids.
Cognitive skill trends can be measured by changes in working memory, the ability to process information during conversations. For the present study, cognitive tests were used to measure the working memory, selective attention, and speech processing speed of study participants before and after wearing hearing aids.
Study Results: Hearing Aids Improve Cognitive Function
Results from this study indicated significant improvements in the auditory working memory of participants after 6 weeks of hearing aid use. Why is this important? Using hearing aids in the early stages of age-related hearing loss, even mild hearing loss, can have a positive impact on working memory performance.
According to Desjardins, “Most people will experience hearing loss in their lifetime. Think about somebody who is still working and they’re not wearing hearing aids and they are spending so much of their brainpower just trying to focus on listening. They may not be able to perform their job as well. Or if they can, they’re exhausted because they are working so much harder. They are more tired at the end of the day and it’s a lot more taxing. It affects their quality of life.”
An Allied Study
Another study recently published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society by researchers at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research in Bordeaux France found that “Use of hearing aids attenuates cognitive decline in elderly people with hearing loss”.
The bottom line of this study? Hearing aids appear to have a positive effect on thinking and memory functions, by restoring communication abilities and promoting social interaction, qualities that are known to reduce isolation and resulting depression.
Hearing impairment is one of the most common health problems in the United States. It affects more than 9 million Americans over the age of 65 and 10 million Americans between 45 and 64, but only 1 in 5 people who need hearing aids actually wear them. That means 4 in 5 people with hearing loss are tossing dice that only allow bad outcomes.
Our take-away from these studies? We have choices and those choices effect the way we live. We urge older adults with hearing loss to seek qualified treatment by a Doctor of Audiology.