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May 14, 2018 Baycrest is leading the way in providing older adults easier access to affordable hearing care in their community.

The Toronto HEARS (Hearing Equality through Accessible Research and Solutions) project, the first Canadian community-based, low-cost, hearing rehabilitation program of its kind, will not only help prevent social isolation and loneliness among older adults, it may also decrease a person’s chances of developing dementia.

“A large international study by The Lancet recently identified untreated mid-life hearing loss as a risk factor for dementia,” says Marilyn Reed, Practice Advisor for Baycrest’s Audiology Department. “We don’t yet know what the link is, but we do know that if people can’t hear well, it becomes harder for them to converse and socialize. We now know that social isolation is a huge risk factor for other age-related health issues, one of which is cognitive decline.”

Hearing loss is a common problem faced by older adults, but too often it is left untreated. At least one in four adults over the age of 50 experiences hearing problems and the condition’s prevalence increases with age. But it takes an average of 10 years before people seek treatment, even when they do, less than 20 per cent of them will use hearing aids in their day-to-day lives.

The Toronto HEARS service model is based on a program created at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.  Piloting the program in Toronto, Baycrest’s team of audiologists was able to reach out to older adults in low-income neighbourhoods and offer hearing screenings, as well as a tailored education and counselling program with optional low-cost, amplification devices for individuals with mild hearing loss. In partnership with community centres across the city, Baycrest’s staff taught individuals with hearing loss - and their spouses or people they frequently communicate with - tactics to improve their hearing and communication skills.

“We would like to offer all older adults helpful tools, even if they can’t afford to buy a hearing device,” says Reed. “As we get older, our brains take longer to process what we hear. Hearing aids can’t slow down a person’s speech and this is where behavioural communication strategies, like asking people to speak slowly and face you, are very beneficial.”

Thanks to support from the Baycrest-led Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation, Toronto HEARS ran a successful pilot program to test its feasibility. Through the program, researchers found that audiologists were able to effectively reach and treat individuals who were unaware of a hearing loss problem. Program participants and people they frequently communicate with reported improvements in their communication, social participation, independence and quality of life. The program also helped educate community centre staff about hearing loss and communication skills.

With additional funding, the Toronto HEARS program could be expanded to reach older adults across Canada, especially in underserved, remote communities where traditional hearing healthcare services are not available. As well, the intervention could be incorporated into other wellness programs in seniors’ facilities, hospitals and healthcare institutions, as a way to prevent or delay the onset of other age-related health declines. 

Support the Toronto HEARS program by donating online or calling the donations line at 416-785-2875.
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