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World Alzheimer’s Month: Hearing Loss and Dementia

BHI Responds to Alzheimer’s, Dementia Studies with Consumer Education that Underscores the Urgency of Treating Hearing Loss Promptly, Appropriately

Washington, DC, September 2017—The Better Hearing Institute (BHI) is responding to a new report on dementia prevention—which includes hearing loss as a potential risk factor—by providing information to help people with hearing loss navigate appropriate hearing healthcare and treatment options. BHI’s outreach comes during World Alzheimer’s Month and focuses on providing consumers with pertinent information that will help ensure their efforts to diagnose and treat hearing loss promptly and appropriately are as effective as possible. BHI also is urging adults of all ages to take its confidential online hearing check at BetterHearing.org to determine if they need a more comprehensive hearing test by a hearing healthcare professional.

The findings of a comprehensive report by The Lancet International Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care suggest that more than one third of global dementia cases may be preventable through addressing lifestyle factors that impact an individual's risk. Hearing loss is one of nine potential risk factors for dementia included in the report, which also discusses the potential impact of addressing hearing loss in midlife. Midlife tends to be when symptoms of hearing damage commonly begin to appear. And BHI has long advocated addressing adult hearing loss as early in life as possible.

The findings of The Lancet report dovetail with conclusions from two other recent studies. One, an English longitudinal study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, concluded, “Older adults with hearing loss are at greater risk of dementia than those with normal hearing. These findings are consistent with the rationale that correction of hearing loss could help delay the onset of dementia, or that hearing loss itself could serve as a risk indicator for cognitive decline.”

The other study was reported at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) 2017 in July. Taylor Fields, a doctoral student in the Neuroscience Training Program within the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, conducted the research with colleagues. Fields said her study “suggests that hearing loss could be an early indicator of worsening cognitive performance in older adults," according to an Alzheimer’s Association press release. She also said that "Identifying and treating hearing loss could have value for interventions aimed at reducing the burden of Alzheimer's disease.”

These three new studies build on earlier research showing a link between hearing loss and dementia. Specifically, a pair of studies out of Johns Hopkins found that hearing loss is associated with accelerated cognitive decline in older adults and that seniors with hearing loss are significantly more likely to develop dementia over time than those who retain their hearing. A third Johns Hopkins study revealed a link between hearing loss and accelerated brain tissue loss. Those researchers found that for older adults with hearing loss, brain tissue loss happens faster than it does for people with normal hearing.

What can people do to address their hearing health?

About a quarter of U.S. adults who report excellent to good hearing already have hearing damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Even if someone doesn’t think they have a hearing loss, they might. In fact, it can take years to recognize hearing loss because for many adults, it tends to come on gradually.

BHI encourages people to learn the status of their hearing, and if they have hearing loss, to address it.

To help people get started, BHI offers a free, quick, and confidential online hearing check that adults can take in the privacy and comfort of their own homes. The check prompts people through a series of questions to help them determine if they need a more comprehensive hearing test by a hearing care professional.

Where should people go for help?

Hearing care professionals—audiologists, hearing aid specialists, and ENT’s (Ear, Nose, and Throat doctors or doctors of otology and otolaryngology)—are best-suited to help people who want to determine if they have hearing loss. Going to a hearing care professional helps ensure that any underlying medical issue behind a hearing loss is identified and addressed.

Audiologists and hearing aid specialists are expressly trained in all aspects of hearing aids and amplification, and they’re licensed by the state in which they practice. Many work in practices with ENT doctors. They have the most appropriate and accurate equipment for identifying an individual’s current hearing level. And they can reliably counsel people with hearing loss on appropriate treatment options.

Seeing a hearing care professional is an individual’s best safety net for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Can primary care doctors help people with hearing loss?

Primary care doctors are often the gatekeepers to an initial conversation on hearing health, especially during annual physical exams. For this reason, BHI has created a flipbook to help people talk to their doctors about hearing loss.

It’s important for consumers to realize, however, that they need to take the lead. BHI research shows that patients are more likely to initiate a conversation about hearing than their doctors are—despite the growing number of studies linking unaddressed hearing loss to other health issues—even beyond dementia. In fact, about seven in ten adults who had a physical exam in the last year say it didn’t include a hearing screening.

How can people know what product is right for their hearing needs?

Hearing loss is a complex sensory loss that involves brain function and frequency losses specific to the individual. It’s not a simple mechanical issue that can be safely and appropriately remedied as easily as buying a pair of reader glasses at the grocery store.

True hearing aids are designed to treat hearing loss and are cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They need to be custom-fitted and programmed specifically for the individual to correctly address those specific frequencies the individual has trouble hearing—and not over-amplify across the board, potentially causing greater hearing damage. Follow-up hearing aid adjustments and aural rehabilitation training with a hearing care professional can make or break consumer satisfaction and benefit. Aural rehabilitation training helps consumers adjust to amplification and re-learn to hear and process sounds they hadn’t for the duration of their hearing loss.

Consumers need to be careful not to confuse hearing aids with commonly advertised personal sound amplifiers (PSAPs) that simply turn up the volume—sometimes to dangerously high decibel levels—across all sound frequencies regardless of the individual’s specific hearing needs.

Beyond performing a comprehensive hearing test and making an accurate diagnosis of the degree of hearing loss and cause, hearing care professionals help people weed through the multitude of technologies on the market and identify the best hearing technologies for their specific hearing and lifestyle needs. Moreover, hearing care professionals program the hearing aids to the person’s specific needs and guide the consumer in adapting successfully to the new hearing aids.

Involving a hearing healthcare professional means the consumer gets maximum benefit from the latest in hearing aid technologies—plus, personal coaching and follow-up visits that are invaluable in helping them make the most of their hearing aids.

Currently, hearing aids are only sold by licensed hearing care professionals. But that will change over the next few years due to the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 signed into law in August 2017.

BHI urges consumers to remain encouraged. For those who have already tried over-the-counter amplification without satisfaction, BHI recommends they see a hearing care professional to get a full hearing evaluation and recommendations specific to their individual needs. Most people with hearing loss can benefit from custom-fitted and programmed hearing aids. In fact, the vast majority of people who purchased hearing aids in the last year are glad they did (91%) and say they’d recommend getting hearing aids to family members and friends (90%), BHI research shows.

For information on types of hearing loss, visit http://www.betterhearing.org/news/heres-what-you-need-know-about-different-types-hearing-loss.