Which Will it Be? Dementia, or Hearing Better Than a Normal-Hearing Person

In my work, I keep track of technology developments across a variety of fields to try to better anticipate what the future might be like (especially for media and news). Since getting hearing aids about a year and a half ago, and becoming a contributor to this blog, I’ve (of course) included advancements in hearing technology as well as hearing medicine and research to my scanning routine.

Lately, there’s been a lot of activity in the “hearing” space, both positive and worrying. (Since I am, for the most part, a technology optimist, I believe — and hope — that a positive hearing future is more likely.)

JANUS  (from Vatican Collection)
Photo credit: Jim Gardner

Let’s get the worrisome stuff out of the way first. This isn’t new, but discussion about research linking hearing loss and increased incidence of dementia in older people has been popping up frequently in my scanning recently. Much of it involves the research of Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues in the ongoing Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, which compares brain changes over time between adults with normal hearing and adults with impaired hearing.

In addition to increased risk of dementia among the hearing impaired, the Baltimore study, which started way back in 1958, more recently has found that people with hearing impairment lose brain tissue faster than normal-hearing peers as they age. The tissue loss, confirmed by MRI scans of study participants over a decade, takes place in areas of the brain responsible for processing sound and speech. That makes sense; those parts of the brain in the hearing-impaired probably don’t get “exercised” as much and thus can atrophy. But the problem, according to Lin, is that these structures in the brain don’t work in isolation: they also “play roles in memory and sensory integration and have been shown to be involved in the early stages of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Well, that’s a downer. But as I noted above, there’s reason for optimism. We just may live in a time when advances in hearing technology can overcome what for previous generations was an unavoidable increased risk of getting dementia as they aged.

Earlier this year, when Lin and his colleagues updated their research, he warned: “If you want to address hearing loss well, you want to do it sooner rather than later. If hearing loss is potentially contributing to these differences we’re seeing on MRI, you want to treat it before these brain structural changes take place.”

OK, then, enough with the gloom; I’m going to stay positive for the rest of this article.

If you follow hearing technology developments, you may know about the “Roger” wireless technology standard (developed by Phonak). A number of devices and accessories have been built using Roger, including the Roger Pen, which transmits sound wirelessly from a source (say, a table mate at a noisy restaurant) to your hearing aids, and is able to better help hearing-impaired people hear and understand speech better than those with normal hearing. Indeed, an independent study conducted by Professor Linda Thibodeau at the University of Texas at Dallas concluded that the Roger technology enabled hearing-aid users “to understand speech in high noise and over distance by up to 62% better than people with normal hearing in the same condition.”

This is in line with advances in other technologies that I track. Exponential growth in computing power and miniaturization of computer chips is allowing technologists to create wearable and implantable devices that can augment or enhance normal human capabilities, well beyond what’s been possible in the past. (I discussed some of this in an earlier Open Ears post.)

I need to throw a couple futurists’ buzzwords at you, to get to my final point.

  • Transhumanism: “The belief that technology can allow us to improve, enhance, and overcome the limits of our biology.”
  • Cybernetics: Cyborgs don’t exist only in Hollywood sci-fi and comic books; they walk among us today. Someone with a cochlear implant (or pacemaker, or retinal implant) is using cybernetic technology, and we might say that he or she is a “cyborg,” or a human with both artificial and organic components.

I mention those terms because what they suggest is that humans can be enhanced with technology, usually implanted under the skin. This isn’t something new; in-the-body pacemakers have been keeping ailing hearts beating since 1958. Here in 2014, we’re approaching a new era when tiny implantable technology will enable people to hear better and hear a wider range of sounds than a normal-hearing person, or see better, farther, and more light frequencies than a normal human with “perfect” eyesight. Researchers working on this stuff expect it to be out of the lab and available in the 2020s and 2030s.

Even now, in 2014, we have technology that can help those of us with hearing impairments hear and understand speech better than normal-hearing people (i.e., Roger). It’s plausible and likely that in the not-too-distant future, our hearing aids will give us better hearing than our normal-hearing peers, without need of intermediary devices such as today’s Roger Pen. Quite possibly, tiny implantable hearing aids also might improve upon what nature gave us.

I’m now 57, and the thought of getting dementia that may be caused by my hearing impairment as I age is scary. I don’t know about you, but I feel better knowing that I can reduce the risk with my current hearing aids, and perhaps even eliminate my risk of old-age dementia by using near-future hearing aids that improve on the ability of normal-hearing people.

(Well, yeah, there are all those other thing you need to do to age well: exercise, avoid junk food, get enough sleep. …Technology can’t do everything.)

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