senior living

To reduce their risk of dementia, consider buying your parents hearing aids

A hearing aid | BanksPhotos/Getty Images

Researchers have known for years that hearing loss seems to increase the risk of dementia. Now there's evidence that hearing aids can mitigate that risk.

Hearing aids stave off dementia

A French study that followed thousands of older people for 25 years recently found that hearing aids seem to protect against cognitive decline. People who used the assistive devices experienced memory issues at about the same rate as those without any hearing loss.

That's huge news for seniors and their families, since an investment in hearing aids could help stave off, or at least delay, some of the massive caregiving costs associated with Alzheimer's and dementia. The Alzheimer's Association estimates the cost of caring for patients in the U.S. was $226 billion in 2015. Medicare and Medicaid are expected to pay $154 billion in 2015 caring for people with Alzheimer's and other dementias.

Pay now or later

The problem is that hearing aids aren't cheap -- they typically cost $2,000 to $3,000 apiece -- and they're not covered by Medicare or most private insurance.

"When Medicare was created in the 1960s, hearing loss was thought to be an inevitable part of aging," said Dr. Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer for AARP Services Inc. "Why would you cover something that's inevitable?"

Since then, studies have demonstrated the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline. One research project in 2011 found that those with moderate hearing loss had triple the risk of dementia as those with normal hearing.

Hearing loss contributes dramatically to other problems that also are associated with dementia, including social isolation and depression, Yeh said.

Hearing loss contributes to falls

Hearing loss also significantly increases the risk of falling, a leading cause of death for people over 65. Even a mild degree of hearing impairment tripled the risk of accidental tumbles in a study by researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the National Institute of Aging, and the risk increased 140% for every 10 decibels of hearing loss.

People wait too long

But untreated hearing loss is the norm. Only 20% of those with hearing loss seek treatment, and hearing aid users typically wait over 10 years to get fitted with the devices. By that point, they may have permanently lost some of their ability to distinguish sounds, even with aids.

"It becomes far more difficult to learn to use hearing aids," Yeh said. "That's why I think early testing is important and why early use of hearing devices makes sense."

Some possibilities for lowering the cost include:

Veterans Administration. Veterans can get a free hearing evaluation from an audiologist. Those diagnosed as needing hearing assistance will get hearing aids, repairs and batteries at no cost.

Federal employee benefits. The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Service Benefit Plan covers up to $2,500 in hearing aid costs.

Other insurance. Some plans offer partial coverage or discounts with contracted providers. Only 3 states -- Arkansas, New Hampshire and Rhode Island -- mandate hearing aid coverage for adults.

Loans. Many states offer "assistive technology" loan programs through the RESNA Alternative Financing and Telework Technical Assistance Project, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education. CareCredit is another option, offering a credit card for health care services.

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