One small device can make a big difference in the lives of older people, but few of them get the helpful gadget, a new study suggests.
People age 66 and older who got a hearing aid shortly after being diagnosed with hearing loss were less likely to receive a first-time diagnosis of dementia or depression, or be injured by a fall, in the following three years, a study published Thursday by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found.
Researchers from the University of Michigan examined insurance data from nearly 115,000 Michigan residents whose insurance covered part of the cost of hearing aids. People who got hearing aids had an 18% lower risk of being diagnosed with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, within three years of their hearing loss diagnosis, the study found. The risk of a depression diagnosis was 11% lower and the risk of being injured in a fall was 13% lower.
“Though hearing aids can’t be said to prevent these conditions, a delay in the onset of dementia, depression and anxiety, and the risk of serious falls, could be significant both for the patient and for the costs to the Medicare system,” said Elham Mahmoudi, a University of Michigan health economist who led the study.
People with hearing loss may have higher rates of dementia, depression and fall injuries for a variety of reasons, the researchers said, including diminished social interaction, loss of balance and less brain stimulation.
Though their insurance covered part of the cost, only 12% of the people in the Michigan study got hearing aids after they were diagnosed with hearing loss. People wait an average of 10 years to address their hearing loss, sometimes because they don’t like the way hearing aids look or don’t want to feel “old,” according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Cost is another barrier, but could become less of an obstacle next year when over-the-counter hearing aids will become available under a law passed in 2017. The OTC hearing aids are expected to be cheaper, but they’re only designed to help mild or moderate hearing loss, according to the AARP.
Medicare, the government insurance program for people 65 and older, doesn’t pay for hearing aids, which run between $1,000 and $4,000 for one, according to the Hearing Industry Association, the trade group for hearing aid manufacturers.
The Michigan study found disparities in who was more likely to get a hearing aid: 13.3% of men with hearing loss received them, compared to 11.3% of women. Only 6.5% of people of Latino heritage got a hearing aid, versus 9.8% of African-Americans and 13.6% of whites.
The study builds on previous research that has identified a link, though not necessarily a causal one, between hearing loss and dementia.
Hearing loss affects people’s relationships, their overall physical health, and even their earning power: People with “unaided” hearing loss earned on average $20,000 less annually than those who used hearing aids or cochlear implants, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America.