My loved one has hearing loss, but they also have dementia. Can hearing aids still help them?

By, Emily Steffel, AuD

Yes.  Virtually anyone with hearing loss has the potential to benefit from hearing aids.  Hearing aids provide assistance with hearing and understanding 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 shown that a connection exists between hearing loss and dementia. Scientists are not yet sure what the connection all entails, if hearing loss actually causes cognitive decline or if both conditions are just more likely to occur if the other condition is present.  However, it is well known that it is impossible to remember information you didn’t hear in the first place.

Additionally, some scientists are performing research into whether hearing aids may help to slow the progression of cognitive decline.  The reason that they hypothesize that hearing aids may help revolves around what happens in the brain over time with untreated hearing loss.  When a person has untreated 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.  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.  Therefore, it is crucial to protect all portions of the brain from deterioration.  By providing a more adequate level of auditory stimulation, hearing aids are one way to help keep the brain and its connections better protected.

It is important to be aware, however, that hearing aids cannot stop or reverse dementia symptoms.  Additionally, 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 can 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 commonly present for 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 to convince them to wear them, hearing aids can help a loved one stay connected with all the people in their lives.