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Use your hearing aids to avoid cognitive decline and memory loss

In an era when we hear this all the time and about all aspects of living wisely this is hardly news and it should come as no surprise that the latest science is unequivocal when it comes to hearing loss: get hearing aids and even more importantly, use them often and consistently.

“Only about 20 percent of people who actually need hearing aids will purchase them and wear them,” Dr. Desjardins said. “There’s a stigma attached. People think it makes them appear older when the fact that they can’t hear or know what’s going on is really what makes them look older”.

So here is the latest. A researcher at the U. of Texas, El Paso DR. Desjardins studied a group of individuals in their 50s and 60s with hearing loss who had previously never used hearing aids. They were given tests to measure their working memory, selective attention and processing speed abilities prior to and after using the hearing aids. What she found was amazing. When tested prior to wearing hearing aids, these individuals performed poorly in cognition tests and memory.

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,” Dr. Desjardins (the researcher) said. “You may actually be using the majority of your cognitive resources – your brain power – in order to figure out that message.”

Their brains were stressed out trying to make out what they were hearing. It sidetracked the brain to spend more time on hearing including listening to the input from other sense and understanding what was meant than it would normally have to do. All of this led to reduced cognitive awareness and memory loss.

Then the study participants received hearing aids. And lo and behold, cognition and memory improved markedly. How so? Why? Because the brain did not have to divert as many resources to deciphering hearing.

Recently I was out to dinner with a friend who had recently bought one of our hearing aids. We were in a very noisy restaurant. I noticed that he did not have his hearing aids on. When I asked him why he was not wearing his hearing aids, he responded that he could hear very well and did not need them all the time. There is some logic behind his actions. The truth is that for first time users, new hearing aids make you more aware of listening. So that when you take off your hearing aids, the novelty of focusing on listening carefully initially yields great results. But you would be fooling yourself if you thought you had found the cure.

This is often the case with people who delay getting hearing aids, or who first start using hearing aids. You long for some data that would agree with your denial that in fact you don’t need hearing aids.   All through dinner, my friend was focusing his brain very hard to decipher what was being said. Yes, he could hear, but perhaps at a cost.

The author of the research paper suggests that the long term results can include lower cognition and poorer memory.

“Most people will experience hearing loss in their lifetime,” Dr. Desjardins explained. “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.”

My point is the sooner we recognize we need hearing aids, just as some of us recognized we needed glasses, and accept the need to wear them, the better off we become. The decline associated with hearing impairment ends right then and there. It’s like stopping to smoke, from the moment you stop your risk for smoke-related health issues stops growing and can in time potentially reverse and improve.

The same is true about hearing. The more you use your hearing aids the better you get at deciphering hearing (when wearing hearing aids), not by magically improving your cognition, but by stopping the diversion of brain resources for hearing and by exercising your auditory cortex—the listening part of your brain.

The newest hearing aids are practically invisible. Both users and observers do not even notice that they are in the ear. Reframe how you think about hearing aids: they are helping you now and in the future, just by wearing them. In other words, they both prevent and reduce the impacts of hearing loss.