Brain Awareness Week - Understanding the Vital Role the Brain Plays in Hearing

Copenhagen, Denmark
12 March 2018

Wearing hearing aids helps people with hearing loss to once again enjoy social environments and may help curb dementia

It’s Brain Awareness Week and leading hearing aid provider, Oticon, is taking the opportunity to discuss the importance of managing hearing loss to maintain brain health. Most people are not aware that untreated hearing loss can make the brain less effective at handling communication and social interaction and thereby increase the risk of many diseases and conditions such as fatigue, depression and dementia. The Lancet recently reported that hearing loss is the number one biggest modifiable risk factor for the early onset of dementia[i]. Thankfully this means that taking action to manage hearing loss can actually help curb dementia.

We take for granted that hearing is simple. Most would presume that hearing happens in the ears, but in fact it is the brain that works hard to convert sound into information that we understand, and it is a very energy intensive process. With hearing loss, the brain has to work extra hard, which means it has less of the critical resources needed for other vital functions such as memory and concentration, especially in noisy or challenging environments such as restaurants with a cacophony of background noise or family dinners where voices are competing for attention.

Consequently, hearing loss can be extremely tiring and can drain the mental energy people need for everyday activities, often leading them to avoid social connections that are important for maintaining brain health. Actively wearing hearing aids helps the brain to manage sound more effectively and therefore users are more likely to stay socially engaged and keep their brain fit with the mental give-and-take in social interaction. For example, research shows that managing hearing loss with hearing aids may reduce the risk of dementia by a significant 9%. That’s greater than quitting smoking (5%), getting treatment for depression (4%) and exercising more (3%). It even means more than being free of the “dementia gene” ApoE4 (7%)[ii].

Oticon has pioneered BrainHearing™ research for over two decades to help understand and aid the critical role that the brain plays in hearing. Believing in a ‘brain first’ approach, Oticon directly addresses the strain hearing loss places on the brain with its Opn™ hearing aids, which minimise the mental effort required to understand speech in noise and preserve the mental resources needed to engage in brain-stimulating activities. In fact, tests have repeatedly shown that Opn™ increases understanding, with wearers also experiencing less listening effort when trying to understand speech. And because wearers use less brain resources for understanding, they remember more of what was said[iii].

“There is an increasing body of evidence linking people that are hard of hearing with a higher risk of cognitive decline and consequently conditions such as dementia,” says Thomas Behrens, Chief Audiologist, Oticon. “We believe that the long-term public health benefit could be substantial if we ensure effective treatment for hearing loss more broadly. Empowering hearing aid users to feel more at ease in challenging and noisy situations enables them to benefit from the important exercise the brain gets from regular, healthy social interaction, which is why we remain dedicated to the evolution of BrainHearing™ technologies to help people hear better and to enjoy social environments instead of avoiding them.”

Up to 360 million people worldwide have impaired hearing and this figure is set to rapidly rise, according to the World Health Organization, while almost 45 million people having Alzheimer's or another form of dementia, a number that is predicted to increase to nearly 136 million in the next 40 years according to Alzheimer's Disease International. Both hearing loss and dementia occur more often in later years, a clear sign that our aging brain has a vital role to play in both conditions, and a reminder of the importance of maintaining brain health.

“We are all living longer which naturally means that age-related ailments are likely to become more prevalent. Brain Awareness Week provides us with the perfect opportunity to discuss the significant effect that better hearing can have on long-term brain health and hopefully encourage anyone living with untreated hearing loss to seek advice from an expert to help them hear better and therefore live better,” concludes Thomas Behrens.

The annual global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research takes place 12-18th March 2018.

About Oticon

500 million people worldwide suffer from hearing loss. The majority are over the age of 50 while eight percent are under the age of 18. It is Oticon's ambition that our customers - hearing clinics throughout the world - prefer to use our products for people with impaired hearing. Through passion, dedication and professional expertise, Oticon develops and manufactures hearing aids for both adults and children. Oticon supports every kind of hearing loss from mild to severe and we pride ourselves on developing some of the most innovative hearing aids in the market. Headquartered out of Denmark, we are a global company and part of William Demant Holding Group with more than 12,000 employees and revenues of over DKK 12 billion.

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[i]Livingston, et al (2017). Dementia presentation, intervention, and care. The Lancet, 17:31363-6.

[ii]Livingston, et al (2017). Dementia presentation, intervention, and care. The Lancet, 17:31363-6.