SUMMARY: A new study has found that wearing hearing aids at the appropriate time is more important than ever. The longer we ignore our hearing loss, the more we are at risk of dementia and cognitive decline. 

It’s not easy telling a parent that he or she needs hearing aids. I suppose my dad isn’t the first person to dismiss the obvious signs of faltering hearing with a shrug. For a while, he managed to camouflage the extent of his hearing loss, but he ultimately came around and agreed to see a specialist.

That didn’t quite prove to be the solution I hoped for. Yes, he agreed to get hearing aids. But as we soon came to find out, not all hearing aids — or hearing aid providers — are created equal. No matter how much my father fussed with the devices, they never quite worked as well as promised.

Sometimes they emitted high-pitched squeals that left everyone in the same room wishing they had ear plugs. Or, my dad endured too much noise, a fuzzy mix of conversation and background sounds that he couldn’t distinguish. Too many times to count I’d watch as he fiddled with the devices, trying to find some elusive happy medium.

He tried replacements, but many of the same problems cropped up. You could probably blame user error in some cases, but it still always seemed like hearing aids shouldn’t be so complicated.

A few years after his hearing started to go, it appeared my dad also started becoming a little more forgetful. I say this with more than a few grains of salt, as forgetfulness is nothing new for my dad. Searching for misplaced keys or lost tools occurred so often it became comical. So when the memory lapses started occurring a little more frequently, they didn’t immediately set off alarm bells.

But when I started doing a little research online, I found a couple of articles that hit home.

First, I read a story about hearing loss being linked to dementia. It focused on studies that supported this theory, including research that found older people with hearing loss severe enough to interfere with conversation were about 25% more likely than their counterparts with normal hearing to experience diminished cognitive abilities.

But it was an article I saw reporting on a study that showed wearing hearing aids could slow cognitive decline that really grabbed my attention.

“Hearing aids may lessen the forgetfulness and mental confusion tied to moderate to severe hearing loss,” the story said.

“This study is important because it focuses on a risk factor that is amenable to intervention in later life and could potentially postpone cognitive decline,” Jennifer Deal, the study’s lead author from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says in the article.

But it also points out the need for quality, customized hearing aids that operate consistently without being intrusive.

“Recent advances in hearing aid technology, such as directional microphones and noise reduction circuits, have given users increased audibility in background noise,” Dr. Michael R. Menachof, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist near Denver, Colorado, says on his website. “Although it is impossible to completely eliminate all background noise, today’s hearing aids are specifically designed to help reduce the interference of unwanted background sound.”

The study’s authors say in the article that little research has focused on whether wearing hearing aids lessens the risk of future cognitive problems. That’s likely to change as hearing loss is a medical issue that is sure to get continued attention. The condition already affects more than 40 million Americans, and that number is growing because of the increased use of headphones, amplified noise levels, and exposure to industrial equipment, along with the aging Baby Boomer population. Hearing loss is one of the 2 most common illnesses in people older than 50, second only to arthritis.

So I’ve concluded that not only do I need to find an experienced and qualified hearing specialist to get new hearing aids for my dad, I need to keep their business card. I’ll probably be visiting in a few years.