OBJECTIVES: Recent studies have shown an association between poorer hearing thresholds and smaller brain tissue volumes in older adults. Several underlying causal mechanisms have been opted, with a sensory deprivation hypothesis as one of the most prominent. If hearing deprivation would lead to less brain volume, hearing aids could be hypothesized to moderate this pathway by restoration of hearing. This study aims to investigate whether such a moderating effect of hearing aids exists. DESIGN: The authors conducted a cross-sectional study involving aging participants of the population-based Rotterdam Study. Hearing aid use was assessed by interview and hearing loss was quantified using pure-tone audiometry. Total brain volume, gray matter and white matter volume and white matter integrity [fractional anisotropy (FA) and mean diffusivity] were measured using magnetic resonance imaging. Only participants with a pure tone average at 1, 2, and 4 kHz (PTA1,2,4) of ≥35 dB HL were included. Associations of hearing loss with brain volume and global measures of white matter integrity were analyzed using linear regression, with hearing aid use and interaction between hearing aid use and PTA1,2,4 included as independent variables. Models were adjusted for age, sex, time between audiometry and magnetic resonance imaging, level of education, and cardiovascular risk factors. RESULTS: Out of 459 included participants with mean age (range) 70.4 (52 to 92) 41% were female. Distributions of age and sex among hearing aid users (n = 172) did not significantly differ from those without hearing aids. PTA1,2,4 was associated with lower FA, but not with a difference in total brain volume, gray matter volume, white matter volume, or mean diffusivity. Interaction between hearing aid use and PTA1,2,4 was not associated with FA or any of the other outcome measures. Additional analysis revealed that interaction between hearing aid use and age was associated with lower FA. CONCLUSIONS: We found no evidence for a moderating effect of hearing aids on the relationship between hearing loss and brain structure in a population of older adults. However, use of hearing aids did appear as an effect modifier in the association between age and white matter integrity. Future longitudinal research is needed to clarify these results.
The authors want to thank Tekla Enser for her extensive work in performing all audiometric tests on subjects in this study. We are grateful to all the
participants of the Rotterdam Study, the staff from the Rotterdam Study, and the participating general practitioners and pharmacists.
The Rotterdam Study is funded by Erasmus Medical Center and Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands Organization for the Health Research
and Development (ZonMw), the Research Institute for Diseases in the Elderly (RIDE), the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the
Ministry for Health, Welfare and Sports, the European Commission (DG XII), and the Municipality of Rotterdam.
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