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A pioneering study which will look at whether cochlear implants can help combat dementia in old age has been launched at a Bradford hospital.

The announcement comes on World Hearing Day (March 3), as doctors at Bradford Royal Infirmary (BRI), part of Bradford Teaching Hospitals, start recruitment for the European and Middle Eastern-wide study involving those aged 55 and over with profound hearing loss.

The BRI’s Yorkshire Auditory Implant Service is the only UK centre which has been invited to participate in the research trial, thanks to its pioneering work implanting cochlear implants in older people under local anaesthetic.

Doctors implant at least one elderly patient under local anaesthetic every month.

Professor Chris Raine, Ear Nose and Throat surgeon, said: “This is a fascinating and potentially life-changing study because it has the capacity to uncover whether restored hearing can stave off age-related cognitive conditions like dementia.

“The aim of the research is to find out how cochlear implants can benefit older adults. Previous research projects have shown that having a hearing loss can lead to faster cognitive decline in the adult population, as can having a general anaesthetic in older adults.

Prevent cognitive decline

“We want to find out if using a cochlear implant can help prevent this rate of cognitive decline amongst adults aged over 55.”

A cochlear implant is a small electronic device that is surgically implanted and can provide someone who is deaf or severely hard of hearing with a sense of sound.

Although they cannot restore normal hearing, they provide a representation of sounds that allows the patient to understand speech again.

The implant operation lasts around an hour.

The oldest patient to receive an implant so far in Bradford under local anaesthetic was 91-year-old Charles Holden in 2015.

Jane Martin, Head of the YAIS, said: “We are honoured to have been asked to participate in this research run by the Hearring Group (corr). It is a reflection of the pioneering work carried out by our surgeons who are at the forefront of implanting so many elderly adults under local anaesthetic from across the region and beyond.

Local anaesthetics safer for older people

“Research has proved that local anaesthetics are safer for older people who very often have other co-morbidities and it’s widely known that they can also have an impact on a person’s cognitive decline.

“Being able to hear is a wonderful gift many of us take for granted and evidence is increasingly suggesting that being able to maintain good communication and regular socialising, thanks to being able to hear others, might stop that decline into old age and the onset of the likes of conditions such as dementia.

“Getting out and communicating in groups is vitally important to older people – and if you can’t do this and feel socially isolated then hearing loss can put up huge barriers to people being able to live a fuller life.”

The Bradford team aims to recruit 30 patients in total aged 55 or over who suffer from severe or profound hearing loss in both ears. Fifteen who go on to have cochlear implants will participate in the study, and doctors will also include 15 who decide not to pursue the operation.

Both groups will be monitored and assessed over a two-year period.

The study’s lead investigator is Dr Paul van der Heyning, who is based in Antwerp, Belgium.