Intelligent hearing aids could help stall early stages of dementia
A new hearing aid controlled by a smartphone could help reduce the risk of hearing loss caused by loud noise and slow down the early stages of dementia.
Around 11 million people in the UK – one in six – are affected by some form of hearing loss and this is expected to rise to 15.6 million by 2035. Hazardous noise exposure is one factor believed to contribute to this rise. For example, loud building work, going to concerts with amplified music, or listening to music at a high volume through headphones.
Current hearing aids are effective at improving hearing as they make soft sound lounder, but they often don’t provide sufficient help to distinguish speech from background noise. This can lead to people avoiding social situations and puts them at risk of becoming isolated.
Researchers from Guy’s and St Thomas’, University College London, City, University of London, and 10 other centres across Europe have helped to develop a state-of-the art hearing aid and mobile phone app, which are being tested in the new EVOTION clinical study.
The goal of the project is to use ‘big data’ – extremely large sets of information that can be analysed to reveal patterns and trends – to help develop interventions for people with hearing loss across the country.
The hearing aid has four settings that are suitable for different environments and different kinds of hearing help needed across the day, which can be controlled and monitored wirelessly through the phone app.
The app offers auditory training programmes to help improve listening skills and can alert the user when surrounding noise is louder than the recommended safe levels.
Some participants are also given a fitness tracker wristband so researchers can monitor the user’s heart rate and blood oxygen levels.
Dr Louisa Murdin, audiovestibular medicine consultant, who is leading the study at Guy’s and St Thomas’, said: “Hearing loss is so common that it’s become a public health issue. A lot of people could benefit from hearing aids but aren’t wearing them, particularly older people.
“When left untreated, hearing loss can lead to depression, isolation and an increased risk of dementia.”
She added: “The EVOTION project is the first of its kind. We want to understand the factors that make people wear their hearing aids and to see if this new technology can help them to socialise.
“The pioneering hearing aids give patients greater control – alerting them to dangerously loud noise and allowing them to test their hearing through the app if they think they have been exposed to a loud sound.
“We’re collecting big data from the phone app and fitness tracker – looking at how often patients turn their hearing aid up or down, where they do this and if they are showing signs of stress when they are in a noisy environment.
“Our ultimate aim is to improve the services provided for millions of hearing aid users and help with bringing the technology into the 21stcentury. By doing so it could help slow down the early stages of dementia.”
The year-long EVOTION clinical study is recruiting 1,260 hearing-impaired people from across the UK, Greece and Denmark.
Jackie Faris, from Farnham in Surrey, recently joined the study at Guy’s and St Thomas’.
The retired teacher lost her hearing in early childhood after an ear infection and this was made worse by environmental factors and also pregnancy. She has worn a hearing aid for around 40 years.
Jackie, 70, said: “The EVOTION aids are a real step up from any hearing aid that I have worn in the past and, although they cannot replace natural sound, they give me greater access to the hearing world.
“This means I’m able to communicate with people quite naturally now and sometimes they may not even guess that I have a hearing loss.”
In order to monitor and feedback her daily use of the hearing aids and the different environments she encounters, Jackie carries the smart phone at all times during the day.
She said: “This phone is my constant companion, along with the aids; tucked away in my bag or pocket, to be brought out instantly should I need to adapt to a new environment. A hearing person would do this in an instant without thinking.”
Jackie added: “Like so many other disabilities being deaf is a big deal. I too want to remain communicating in a hearing world. I’m excited and feel very privileged to be part of this pioneering research, which can surely only benefit us all.”
Hilary Beresford, 60 from Chiswick in west London, went deaf in one ear 20 years ago after suffering from a virus, and the hearing in her other ear has deteriorated with age.
The grandmother, who joined the study at Guy’s and St Thomas’ in March, said: “The new hearing aids have much better clarity.
“I now notice silly little things like the sound of drumming my fingers on the table or putting paper bags away – I didn’t realise how noisy I was.”
The EVOTION consortium consists of 13 partners across eight countries and is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.