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Hearing aids may improve cognitive performance in older adults

The finding suggests hearing loss can play a role in cognitive decline, among other negative effects on an older person's life, researchers say.  By Stephen Feller      May 2016

Researchers say older people with hearing loss who use hearing aids may be able to slow cognitive declines, but just 15 percent of elderly people with hearing loss use them. Photo by Alexander Raths/Shutterstock

NEW YORK, April 25 (UPI) -- The importance of hearing for older people to maintain engagement in the world is well known, but researchers found hearing loss may also play a role in cognitive declines.

Researchers in a study conducted at Columbia University Medical Center found older people with hearing loss who used hearing aids performed better on cognitive tests than those who didn't, suggesting the devices could help slow cognitive declines as people age.

While more than half of all adults over age 75 have hearing loss, less than 15 percent use a hearing aid. Previous studies have shown hearing impairment can play a role in accidental injuries an death, social isolation and higher incidence of depression and demenita, while aids have been shown to prevent these things.

People often wait six years or more to address the symptoms of hearing loss, with research showing those who opt not to wear hearing aids at 50 percent greater chance of sadness or depression, which can then start or intensify other conditions.

For many people, insurance does not cover hearing aids -- 19 states require health insurance to cover hearing aids, and only three cover both adults and children, and Medicare, unlike the Department of Veterans Affairs, does not cover aids for most people, CNN reports.

The Affordable Care Act included screenings for children, but does not specifically require insurance companies to cover hearing on plans bought through the Obamacare exchanges. Some states have even moved to prohibit plans from covering hearing aids, according to the AARP.

Researchers say the provisions, which experts and activists have pinned to concerns about increasing costs for insurers, ignore the obvious: Hearing aids may help prevent even more expensive health costs.

"We know that hearing aids can keep older adults with hearing loss more socially engaged by providing an important bridge to the outside world," Dr. Anil Lalwani, a professor of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at Columbia University Medical Center, said in a press release.

For the study, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, researchers recruited 100 adults with hearing loss between the ages of 80 and 99, 34 of whom used hearing aids.

After performing hearing tests on all participants, the researchers evaluated cognitive function using the Mini-Mental State Examination, which requires vocal responses to verbal commands, and the Trail Making Test, Part B, to measure executive function of the brain.

Participants using hearing aids performed significantly better on the tests. Among those who did not use hearing aids, those with worse hearing performed worse than those with better hearing.

"Our study suggests that using a hearing aid may offer a simple, yet important, way to prevent or slow the development of dementia by keeping adults with hearing loss engaged in conversation and communication," Lalwani said.


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