08 July 2019

Dementia is becoming increasingly frequent, and threatens public health. Research has established a link between the condition and problems with hearing. What can be done to prevent or slow the progress of dementia? This was one of the topics discussed at an international research conference in Linköping.

Every two years, scientists in cognitive hearing science gather in Linköping to exchange experience and share research results with like-minded folk. This year was the fifth time the conference was arranged, and 150 participants from all over the world attended. Photo credit David Einar

“Through the years, the conference has become an important arena where scientists working in cognitive hearing science can meet”, says Professor Jerker Rönnberg, one of the organisers from the hearing research institute HEAD at Linköping University.

Dementia and hearing loss

The conference this year focussed on dementia and hearing loss, a link that previous research has clearly demonstrated. Sixty percent of people older than 75 years have a hearing impairment that makes it difficult for them to communicate and socialise normally. With such an impairment, the risk for depression – and for dementia – increases.

“Previous research has shown that when a person cannot hear clearly, the information is not stored in long-term memory. Nor is information retrieved as often from the long-term memory, which means that it receives less ‘exercise’ and its function deteriorates as time passes”, says Jerker Rönnberg.

During the four days of the conference, dementia and hearing loss were discussed in several presentations. One of the contributors was Professor Frank Lin from Johns Hopkins University in the US. His research concerns how hearing loss affects various functions in the elderly, and what can be done to mitigate its effects.Old senior woman with her granddaughter.Poor hearing and dementia are connected Photo credit EllenaZ

One of the research projects carried out by Frank Lin and his colleagues concerns whether hearing rehabilitation can reduce the risk of dementia, or delay its onset. In total, 850 people aged between 70 and 84 years with mild to moderate hearing loss are participating in the study, in which they are offered technical aids to hearing. Results from the participants will then be compared with those from a control group who have not used technical aids. The aim of the project is to examine the link between hearing rehabilitation and cognitive difficulties. This is the first study of this type, and is expected to end in 2022.

Eye movements to control a hearing aid

Another visitor to the conference was Renskje K. Hietkamp from Denmark. She works at the Eriksholm Reseach Centre, part of the Oticon company, which manufactures hearing aids.

“I’m at the conference to keep up-to-date and to discuss the best ways of testing ideas. What I like about this conference is that many of the participants also give a presentation or poster. And the relatively limited size of the conference makes it easy to exchange experiences in the breaks”, she says.

Renskje K. Hietkamp is herself here in a wider role than simply listener. She is presenting a scientific poster that describes a rather different research project.
“We have filmed people with hearing loss while they test a hearing aid that can be controlled by eye movement.”
It is usual that those who participate in research projects are completely anonymous, but in this case the participants share their thoughts about using an eye-controlled hearing aid on YouTube.

“The reason for filming the participants in the study is to enable people to understand what impaired hearing means.”

The background to the project comes from the problems that people with hearing loss experience with ensuring that hearing aids only amplify the sounds they want to be amplified. Background noise in a restaurant, for example, is not something we want to hear more of, but the person sitting opposite us is.
The results show, among other things, that participants in the study using the eye-controlled hearing aid found it easier to understand what was said.

“We are now hoping that many people will see the film and that other researchers will set up similar studies.”

Translated by George Farrants

Steering sound with your eyes



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