Help, my mother has dementia and hearing loss, could hearing aids help her?
Yes. Virtually anyone with hearing loss has the potential to benefit from hearing aids. Hearing aids provide the peripheral auditory system assistance with hearing and understanding sounds and speech, allowing the person to lead a life more connected with the world around them.
In addition to helping a person better understand conversations occurring around them, studies have suggested that hearing aids can help to slow the progression of dementia. When a person has hearing loss, the brain doesn’t receive the level of auditory stimuli it should. This deficit in stimulation can result in the brain no longer maintaining those connections in the brain. This leads to deterioration of the auditory portion of the brain. Just like an arm in a cast atrophies and weakens from non-use, so too does the brain. The more areas of deterioration within the brain, the less efficiently the brain functions overall. The brain has an increasingly limited ability to regenerate and repair the damaged connections as a person gets older. Therefore it is crucial to protect the brain from deterioration in the first place. By providing a more adequate level of auditory stimulation, hearing aids are one way to help keep the brain and its connections protected.
There are some limitations to hearing aids and their effectiveness. They cannot stop or reverse dementia symptoms. They can help make sounds and speech easier to hear and understand, but they cannot restore “normal hearing”. They are also limited by the person’s central auditory system function. If the person has very poor word understanding (i.e. the speech signal is getting scrambled on the way to the brain), the person will need to utilize visual stimulation as well as auditory stimulation. Despite these limitations, hearing aids are able to make large improvements in a person’s life. The use of hearing aids can help immensely in assisting a person’s ability to hear and communicate effectively in their day-to-day life as well as help them to more fully enjoy spending time with their loved ones.
There are some struggles common to patients with both hearing loss and dementia (and their family). It can sometimes be difficult to convince a parent or grandparent with dementia to wear their hearing aids. They may forget that they need them, may forget to put them in, or may forget where they put them. Or they may simply not want to admit to themselves (or others) that they need hearing aids. There are several tips and tricks that can help make hearing aid use easier for these patients and their loved ones. These include reminder notes, repetition, a good organizational system, and consistent routines; to name a few.
Although hearing aids cannot stop or reverse the progression of dementia and it can be challenging at times, the more consistently a person with dementia and hearing loss wears their hearing aids, the easier it will be for them to stay connected with all the people in their lives.