Improved Hearing May Decrease, Delay Dementia
Over the last few years, medical researchers made an interesting discovery: Severe hearing loss, in and of itself, contributes to and worsens cognitive decline and dementia among the elderly. While the chicken/egg relationship is not exactly clear—nor the mechanics of how or why—the effect is circular, with one condition feeding upon the other. Both lead to frustration, social withdrawal, depression and anxiety, causing many elderly patients to lose the ability to communicate with or understand the family, friends and others who love and care for them.
But a 2015 study in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery demonstrated marked improvements in thinking and memory skills after hearing- and cognitive-impaired patients received a sophisticated type of hearing device, a cochlear implant.
So why aren’t more patients with both dementia and profound hearing loss receiving the same treatment? The answer may lie in the procedure itself.
“Typically, a patient undergoing a cochlear implant receives general anesthesia,” says Selena Heman-Ackah Briggs, MD, a head and neck surgeon specializing in hearing loss and ear disease at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. The Hospital Center was the first and, for many years, only site in the metropolitan area to offer cochlear implants for adults. “Yet anesthesia is a known risk factor for patients who are already experiencing cognitive decline, especially if they also have other problems like heart or lung disease.”
To resolve the dilemma, Dr. Briggs began substituting local sedation for her elderly cochlear implant patients.
“The milder anesthetic lets patients rest comfortably and breathe on their own during the ‘twilight’ procedure, while reducing the risk of complications,” she says. “In-hospital recovery time is cut almost in half, with patients going home the same day.”
Unlike traditional hearing aids which merely amplify sound, cochlear implants rely upon a sophisticated system of microphones, speech processors, transmitters and other complex parts to interpret and convey electrical impulses directly to the brain. As such, recipients must go through training sessions with audiologists to learn how to “hear” with their new device.
Despite their age, patient response has been remarkable, according to Dr. Briggs.
“Most of my elderly patients are just so excited about being able to hear again,” she says. “Through cochlear implant, we’re restoring their ability to communicate, to be active and functional, and stay in the game of life.”
To listen to Dr. Briggs’s full podcast interview, click here.
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As heard on WTOP Radio:
Selena Heman-Ackah Briggs, MD
MedStar Washington Hospital Center