Talking to Your Loved One About Hearing Aids

When we think about health problems that might threaten the well-being of older loved ones, we usually first think of heart disease, diabetes or dementia. But according to a policy statement from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), hearing loss also is one of the top health challenges for older adults. Hearing loss has a serious impact on physical, cognitive and emotional health. A study published in the Lancet even found that hearing loss is the top modifiable risk factor for dementia—ranking above smoking, high blood pressure, obesity and physical inactivity!

Much research is underway to increase our understanding of the connection between dementia and hearing loss. Hearing difficulties lead to social isolation and depression, and we know those are bad for the brain. Struggling to hear also increases “cognitive load”—when our brains are working hard to perceive sound, there’s less brain power left to remember things. An April 2020 study from Ruhr Universität Bochum in Germany found that hearing loss causes specific physical changes in the brain that affect the memory. And Johns Hopkins expert Dr. Frank Lin says, “While it’s normal for the brain to become smaller as we grow older, the shrinkage seems to be faster tracked in older adults with hearing loss.”

A February 2020 study from University of Melbourne in Australia confirmed that hearing loss hastens cognitive decline. But the study also offered some good news. “Our initial results suggest that instead of declining, cognitive function in older adults with hearing loss who use hearing aids can not only remain stable, but can even improve significantly over time,” reports associate professor Dr. Julia Sarant. “More frequent use of hearing aids is associated with greater improvements in cognitive function. It seems possible, based on these results, that the treatment of hearing loss with hearing aids may delay cognitive decline.”

So why are relatively few older people getting and using hearing aids? A September 2019 study from the University of Michigan found that seniors who are promptly fitted with hearing aids after being diagnosed with hearing loss had a lower risk of dementia, depression and fall injuries—yet even those whose insurance plan covered the devices were unlikely to get them. University of Melbourne’s Dr. Sarant agrees, noting that “despite the effectiveness of hearing aids as a treatment of hearing loss, it’s estimated that up to 76% of people who need hearing aids do not have them,” and that 25% who have them fail to use them.

How can family help?

Family support can make a big difference. The first step is to encourage our loved ones to have their hearing evaluated. People with hearing loss might be in denial, because it can occur so gradually that they don’t realize it’s happening. They might compensate for the problem by turning up the volume on the TV, often louder than other family members can stand. Family find themselves “translating” and repeating things for their loved one.

Share this important fact: The longer someone delays getting a hearing aid, the more their brain loses its ability to interpret sounds. If they wait too long, they may never experience the full benefit of hearing aid technology. Audiologists tell us that this is a “use it or lose it” situation. Be prepared for some of these objections your loved one might raise:

They might be embarrassed. They may say there’s a stigma to using hearing aids. Ask your loved one what is more noticeable, a discreet bit of technology in one’s ear, or misunderstanding conversations and talking too loudly? Today’s hearing aids can look elegant and even hip, with jewels and contemporary patterns, resembling an earring or a phone headset.

The adjustment period is too hard. Yes, adjusting to hearing aids is a learning curve, and it can take a number of appointments with the audiologist before the aids are properly calibrated. Give your loved one a pep talk, affirming that getting used to hearing aids is a process—a process that’s worth it! Offer to go along to appointments. Converse patiently with your loved one as they get used to the aids.

Hearing aids can be expensive. Experts are urging Medicare and private insurances to cover them—after all, this could save a lot of money in the long run as people remain independent and retain their cognitive abilities longer! Meanwhile, help your loved one budget for hearing aids. Find out whether their particular health plan will cover some of the cost. Veterans may be eligible for assistance with some or all of the cost. LifeCare Advocates’ aging life care managers can help locate resources, arrange for an evaluation, and help your loved one manage audiologist appointments and fittings.

And here’s a reminder for our time: As people develop hearing loss, even without knowing it they may rely more on reading lips—a real challenge when the person they’re talking to is wearing a mask. This might make it even more obvious to you these days that your loved one is struggling to hear—and it might be a good way to open the conversation about an evaluation.