Hear Yourself Think: How Ear Implants Might Help

Cochlear implantation for hearing may improve cognitive function and depression in older adults

(RxWiki News) This might be music to the ears of aging adults: a procedure to address hearing loss could also help with mental function.

A new study looked at older patients who received cochlear implants for severe hearing loss and found that not only did hearing improve after the procedure, but so did mental function and symptoms of depression.

Matthew Kircher, MD, of Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, told dailyRx News that patients who cannot hear well can often become isolated. This isolation, Dr. Kircher said, often means less stimulation, which can lead to reduced cognitive function.

"That's the take home point — hearing loss can isolate you," Dr. Kircher said.

Although they helped the patients in this study, cochlear implants aren't for everyone, Dr. Kircher said.

"They're meant for those folks who are essentially no longer helped with hearing aids," he said. "You don't jump from a little hearing loss to a cochlear implant."

And the benefits may not start right away, Dr. Kircher noted. There's often a learning curve.

"It can take some work to get used to it," he said. "It's not completely natural hearing — it's a little different. Imagine your grandma and grandpa using the newest Apple product. Patients might run into similar problems with implants — they have to learn to use the device."

This study was led by Isabelle Mosnier, MD, of the Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris in France. Dr. Mosnier and team looked at 94 patients drawn from 10 US health care centers between 2006 and 2009. The patients were all between the ages of 65 and 85 and had severe hearing loss.

These patients all received cochlear implantation and were assessed before the procedure and six and 12 months after. Cochlear implants are electronic devices placed in the inner ear, or cochlea, that help to restore function to damaged cells in the area.

The patients were evaluated for speech perception — or the ability to correctly hear and identify spoken words. The patients' mental or cognitive function was measured with several tests focused on issues like attention and memory. Depression and quality of life were also measured.

After the cochlear implants, Dr. Mosnier and team noted improvements across the board.

For instance, at the six-month mark, the patients' test scores for speech perception in quiet settings improved by 42 percent.

Measures of quality of life and depression also improved. Before the implants, 59 percent of patients reported no signs of depression. A year after receiving implants, 76 of the patients reported no signs of depression.

Before receiving implants, 44 percent of the patients had abnormal scores on two or three of the six cognition tests used in the study. However, one year after the implants, 81 percent of these patients had improved on their cognition scores to the point that they had only one or zero abnormal scores.

The average scores on all cognitive tests improved only six months after the patients received implants.

"Rehabilitation of hearing communication through cochlear implantation in elderly patients results in improvements in speech perception and cognitive abilities and positively influences their social activity and quality of life," Dr. Mosnier and team wrote.

This study involved a fairly small number of patients, and other factors could be involved in the findings.

This study was published March 12 in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.

A number of groups funded this research, such as Cochlear France and Vibrant Medel Hearing Technology. Dr. Mosnier and team disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
March 11, 2015