Evaluating The Joy of Hearing

The Hearing Industry Research Consortium (HIRC) is a group dedicated to funding and developing research that will benefit the hearing aid industry and those who might benefit from hearing aid use.  The group is made up of international representatives from the 5 major global hearing aid manufacturers, including GN, Starkey, Oticon, Phonak, and WSA.  Dr. Jani Johnson and her team in the Hearing Aid Research Lab collaborated with Dr. Miriam van Mersbergen on a successful proposal for this grant in 2019. Their project posed the question, “Does wearing hearing aids impact the affective state of older adults with hearing loss in daily living?” Their unique approach examined emotional processing in the lab and in daily listening, and used a variety of measures of outcomes, including questionnaires, lab tests, and measures of physiologic states during lab testing and using commercially available wearable sensors throughout the field trial. Research began in 2020 and the study has yielded some fascinating results.

It is well-known that acquired hearing loss affects the processing of emotional stimuli and a listener’s emotional state. However, there is not much evidence exploring the influence that using hearing aids may have on these processing abilities in the real world. Dr. Johnson’s team wanted to study these in daily listening because many of the social and emotional factors that hearing aid wearers experience cannot be replicated in a laboratory environment. However, prior to this study, these types of measures had not previously been attempted in daily listening. Together with Dr. Van Mersbergen, the HARL team was able to link real-world measures to highly sensitive laboratory-grade measures of physiologic state in response to emotional stimuli. The participants in this study were older adults who had mild-to-moderate hearing loss and no previous experience wearing hearing aids. The study consisted of multiple field trials when participants did and did not wear hearing aids. For each trial, the research team measured emotion perception, speech understanding, and perceived workload in daily listening and in the lab. 

At the conclusion of the study, the research team found that speech communication improved, listening effort was reduced, and emotional communication was positively impacted when participants wore hearing aids in daily life and in the lab.  Data from the wearable sensors suggested that participants experienced more physiologic engagement when wearing hearing aids. Most exciting was a large positive effect on listeners’ physiologic well-being, as indicated by increased heart rate variability, when listeners wore hearing aids. This physiologic indicator suggests that participants had healthier autonomic nervous systems and better recovery from stress when wearing hearing aids. This finding was reflected in daily listening and, to a lesser extent, in the laboratory. To date, this is the first study to support the idea that wearing hearing aids can improve physiologic well-being. This research demonstrates that wearing hearing aids can create a positive change in emotional processing and physiologic state for older adults with hearing loss. It also provides evidence that data from wearable sensors can be sensitive to real world changes in physiologic state as a result of improved hearing. This study will have great effects on hearing aid research, counseling, decision-making, and care for the populations we serve. 

Thank you to Dr. Jani Johnson and Dr. Lipika Sarangi for contributing to this story!