Common Misinformation About Brain Health and Hearing

Last update on Nov, 04, 2020

A failing grade went to nearly half the people who took a national online brain health IQ quiz, according to a recent Yahoo! Finance article. The quiz revealed that 80% of participants indicated a desire to reduce their risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but most couldn’t identify risk factors beyond age and genetics.

One of the most notable findings: 74% didn’t know that hearing loss is damaging to the brain.

The results of the brain health IQ quiz should be particularly concerning to health plans, which are burdened with a considerable share of the estimated $290 billion required to care for individuals with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

How can health plans help change this narrative? Here are two ideas for your consideration:

Change the narrative about hearing and brain health

How can health plans help change this narrative? Here are two ideas for your consideration:

1. Educate your members

Go to the Alzheimer’s Association website for reliable, easy-to-understand information about Alzheimer’s and dementia, and encourage members who experience signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s to seek early treatment. Although there’s no cure, certain drug and non-drug treatments may help alleviate Alzheimer’s symptoms and enhance quality of life.

An awareness campaign should include the risk factors for compromised cognitive health. Diabetes, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, obesity, depression and lack of physical exercise are among the leading risk factors besides age, family history and heredity.

You can, and should, add hearing loss to that list, because a number of studies have shown a strong link between hearing health and cognitive health. One of the most prominent studies, conducted by Johns Hopkins researchers, concluded that hearing loss is a risk factor in an estimated 36% of U.S. dementia cases.

Individuals with a “dual sensory impairment” — loss of both vision and hearing — may be even more at risk. Specifically, a University of Washington study of 2,051 older adults found that dual sensory impairment was associated with an 86% higher risk for dementia and a 112% higher risk for Alzheimer’s, compared with having no sensory impairments.

Of course, prevention is always preferable to — and far less costly than — treatment. Among the risk factors for Alzheimer’s and dementia, several are modifiable, including alcohol consumption, smoking, physical inactivity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Can hearing loss treatment be considered a preventive strategy? Among the research pointing to an affirmative answer is a study conducted by the University of Exeter and King’s College London, which found that people who wear hearing aids for age-related hearing loss maintain better brain function over time than their non-aided peers.

2. Offer a hearing benefit

Despite the growing body of research linking brain health with hearing health, an estimated 14.6 million Americans live with untreated hearing loss. One of the biggest impediments is cost. On average, consumers spend $4,000 on a pair of hearing aids, plus about $700 for batteries and professional services.

For health plans, especially Medicare Advantage plans, the gap between need and solution presents a significant opportunity. A high-quality hearing benefit can substantially reduce the cost of hearing aids and professional services. But there are other important criteria to use in evaluating a hearing health care partner. For example:

  • Does the partner’s benefit provide access to all major brands of hearing aids with the latest technology?
  • Does the partner ensure quality outcomes through a stringent credentialing program?
  • How satisfied are members who use the benefit, as measured by an independent, nationally recognized survey?
  • How extensive is the partner’s provider network — does it offer convenient, close-to-home service for health plan members?

Besides improving access to hearing health care, the right hearing benefit contributes to the goals of healthier members and reduced payouts for medical claims. In addition, it can boost Medicare Advantage member retention and growth.

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