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How getting help for hearing loss can be good for the mind

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Frances Dewhurst, Cambridge Hearing Help
Frances Dewhurst, Cambridge Hearing Help

With research showing using a hearing aid can slow the rate of age-related cognitive decline, a series of free workshops is helping people to get the support they need.

New research shows using hearing aids slows the rate of cognitive decline.

Workshops that help people to understand the impact of hearing loss and the resources and support available to overcome them are being held in and around Cambridge.

Exploring hearing aids, technology and shared techniques that can help, the free workshops are run by the charity Cambridgeshire Hearing Help and supported by Cambridge University Hospitals audiology department.

With new research showing how getting a hearing aid can slow the rate of cognitive decline, the charity encourages people to get timely help.

Frances Dewhurst, a hearing aid user and project manager for the Living Well with Hearing Loss workshops, said: “It’s becoming increasingly clear that delay getting help with hearing loss has significant consequences for the people with the condition and their family and friends.

“There’s a lot of help there if you know where to look, but people feel very reluctant to talk about their problems, so don’t share information.

“Cambridgeshire Hearing Help identified a gap in provision for people who want to explore their options in a friendly and informal context with the help of people who have lived-experience of hearing loss. With funding from Eastern Academic Health Science Network and the Cambridge Hearing Trust, we launched our free workshops in June of this year.

“The workshops give people an opportunity to understand how hearing loss is affecting their lives and the many resources available to them.

“Understanding hearing aids and how to get the best use out of them is a big part of it, but we also look at what other technology can do, and how behaviour and the environment can make listening easier.

“People manage better if they come with partners or family members so that they can develop shared techniques for communicating better. The feedback from people attending has been overwhelming; it can be a life-changing opportunity to reverse a process of increasing isolation.”

Hearing loss is the long-term condition that people live with the longest.

Action on Hearing Loss estimates that one in six of us have a hearing loss and the reality is that our hearing wears out before the rest of our bodies, and most of us will end up with a degree of hearing loss. Some 71 per cent of people over the age of 70 have a hearing loss.

Amanda Morgan, director of Cambridgeshire Hearing Help, said: “Our volunteers are well aware of the sheer scale of the challenge of managing hearing loss. In Cambridgeshire we have around 6,500 regular users of our services and that is only the people who have already taken steps to get help.

“But because there is still a significant stigma attached to the condition, people take on average 10 years to pluck up courage to seek advice and support.”

Hearing loss is not simply a matter of not hearing well. It affects people socially and emotionally as communication becomes a challenge and it is a significant contributor to the high levels of loneliness seen in the population. It has also been known for some time through the work of Dr Frank Lin, a leading researcher in the field based in Baltimore, Maryland, and colleagues that untreated hearing loss contributes to higher levels of dementia.

Now new groundbreaking research by Dr Piers Dawes and a team at Manchester University has shown that use of hearing aids slows the rate of age-related cognitive decline that affects memory and thinking skills, by as much as 75 per cent.

Cataract surgery also had a significant impact. The link between sensory impairment and cognitive decline is not yet understood, but Dr Dawes said: “These studies underline just how important it is to overcome the barriers which deny people from accessing hearing and visual aids.”

Cambridge is in the forefront of technological development that goes beyond hearing aids.

Goshawk, based at the Allia Future Business Centre, is developing “the hearing aid in the sky” that will work with the phone network to adjust sound to an individual’s hearing and there other companies that are working with Bluetooth technology to link hearing aids to TVs and mobile devices.

While a cure remains a long way off, our ability to overcome the disadvantages of hearing loss is growing.

Workshops are held in The Abbey Room at Christ Church in Cambridge, the C3 Centre at Brooks Road in Cambridge, Sawston Health Centre, Linton Health Centre, Soham Library and Huntingdon Library. To book go to cambridgeshirehearinghelp.org.uk/living-well or phone 01223 849798.

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