Older adults who get hearing aids soon after a hearing loss diagnosis are less likely to face a host of debilitating health problems than their unaided peers, a new study has found. Yet only 12% of diagnosed seniors get the devices – even when insurance covers part of the cost.

The study, which tracked Medicare HMO recipients with hearing loss coverage, found that the seniors who got hearing aids had a lower risk of dementia, depression and anxiety, and less chance of experiencing fall-related injuries in the three years following a hearing loss diagnosis.

The evidence suggests that timely diagnosis and early intervention has a substantial, near-term effect on important health outcomes, and signals a need to support increased hearing aid use, wrote lead study author Elham Mahmoudi, MBA, Ph.D., University of Michigan.

“We already know that people with hearing loss have more adverse health events and more co-existing conditions, but this study allows us to see the effects of an intervention and look for associations between hearing aids and health outcomes,” Mahmoudi said in a statement. “Though hearing aids can’t be said to prevent these conditions, a delay in the onset … could be significant both for the patient and for the costs to the Medicare system.”

More than 27 million Americans aged 65 years and older live with hearing loss, and that number is growing. The condition is associated with social isolation and reduced quality of life, but the use of hearing aids remains low. This has been attributed to multiple factors, including lack of perceived need, limited apparent benefit, uncomfortable fit, a complex system of hearing care, stigma, and cost, reported Mahmoudi and colleagues. 

In the United States, no or low insurance coverage may contribute to disuse, Mahmoudi wrote. But the devices may soon be more accessible to more people. In 2020, over-the-counter hearing aids for people with mild to moderate hearing loss will become available following a Federal Drug Administration regulatory process. How many people take advantage of these devices remains to be seen.

The study findings are published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.