(Photo courtesy of Beltone USA)
By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor
Beltone of Gadsden has long served local citizens experiencing hearing loss, but new research suggests that the use of hearing aids could have benefits beyond the purely auditory scope.
Licensed Hearing Instrument Specialist Jeff Garth, who sees patients at Beltone’s Gadsden and Trussville locations, is an expert on hearing loss and hearing aids.
“Essentially, I test for hearing loss and offer help if it’s needed,” Garth said. “So my day would consist of anything from a first-time patient coming in to have an assessment done, and I would sit down with them usually for about 90 minutes total, do testing, read results and offer help if needed — to then sometimes I’ll have folks that come in that need to have adjustments made to their hearing aid.”
While Garth clarified that he is not a medical professional, he has worked to test for and remediate hearing loss for several years. In his work, Garth said he has noticed over time that his patients may experience both social and cognitive benefits after receiving hearing aids.
“I’ll [discuss with patients] that not just the hearing loss needs help, but also how it can potentially prevent some other comorbidities happening down the road,” Garth said.
Matt Siegler, HighRes Public Relations president who represents Beltone Gadsden, related the work of local hearing specialists to a 2022 study entitled, ‘Association of Hearing Aids and Cochlear Implants With Cognitive Decline and Dementia: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,’ which claims that “usage of hearing aids and cochlear implants is associated with a decreased risk of subsequent cognitive decline.”
These findings implicate that hearing aids could potentially help slow or delay cognitive decline in patients with symptoms of dementia.
“The use of hearing restorative devices was associated with a 19 percent decrease in hazards of long-term cognitive decline such as incident dementia over a duration ranging from 2 to 25 years,” the study said. “Usage of these devices was also associated with a 3 percent improvement in cognitive test scores in the short term.”
But why is this the case? Garth pointed to a common correlation between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
“There’s a difference between hearing and understanding speech,” Garth explained. “And that’s when patients start to kind of realize, ‘You know what, I do hear my kids when they talk to me, but I don’t understand some of the words.’ And that’s where hearing aids come into treating the hearing loss.”
According to Garth, the majority of people who experience hearing loss still retain some hearing capacity, but for many, their understanding of speech suffers most noticeably.
“There are a set of nerves that send the signals to the auditory nerves, to our brain to help us understand speech,” he said. “Hearing is kind of a whole different thing. Unless you’re just absolutely deaf, you can hear, but when you start misunderstanding speech it makes you feel like you’re losing your hearing. And that’s when those sort of cognitive issues with folks (show up); the more and more they’re straining to try to figure out words, it can overwhelm the brain.”
The fewer signals able to travel to the brain’s speech-processing areas, the weaker those areas become.
“In a nutshell, it’s something we call auditory deprivation,” Garth said. “When the nerves of the brain and the nerves that are responsible for helping us understand speech are deprived of sound, they just get weaker and weaker and start to wither away, essentially atrophy. What the hearing aids do is you use the hearing test that I administer to program exactly where that particular patient hears frequencies and where they need to hear them.”
Correcting those deficiencies, especially if treated early in the decline, can help patients preserve their speech-processing faculties.
This intervention dovetails with the social and interpersonal aspects of patients’ lives. In a kind of double-edged dilemma, decreased understanding of speech can be incredibly isolating for patients, as those with family members suffering from dementia, hearing loss or similar ailments will know.
“I’ve had some patients where the families will tell me that they’ll just kind of not want to be part of conversations, whether it’s holidays or if they happen to be living in assisted living or something, because they just have a really hard time understanding,” Garth said. “And that can potentially lead to things like dementia.”
According to Garth, hearing loss usually falls into one of three categories: hereditary, noise-induced or age-related. Garth has patients of all ages, but the majority of his patients experience age-related hearing loss.
“I get constant patients coming back in that say that things changed immediately, anywhere from something as simple as the TV volume going down to having easier conversations, even being able to go out to dinner and not just sit there in silence while everyone else is talking with each other,” Garth said. “Coming from the stance of dementia or something like that, there’s a possibility that just my tenure with the company hasn’t given me enough time to see anything to where I could answer that, but I’ve gotten something where you skim right around the edge of it. They’re coming back to being more like themselves, in a sense, than they were without getting the help.
“Whether they do still live at home or in an assisted living facility, I’ll get their son, daughter, whoever it might be that brings them back in, that says they’re not just sitting in their room. So when they go in to see them, when they’re talking to them, at least they’re getting some feedback from them, some conversation.”
Garth said the best part of his work, by far, is giving people their hearing — and to some extent, their lives — back.
“I’ve had people cry in my office because they could talk to their loved ones again or just themselves be able to hear better,” he said. “It’s kind of the pride of my job. It’s very enjoyable seeing the happiness.”