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Opinion | These three simple lifestyle changes can add years to people’s lives

Hearing aids
Thought Leader: Leana Wen
December 12, 2023
Written by: Dr. Leana Wen

Over the past year, I’ve been reporting on how artificial intelligence can improve patient safety, enhance diagnosis and expand access to care. While technological innovations offer great promise in medicine, let’s not forget about low-tech solutions that have been shown again and again to improve health and add years to people’s lives.

Here are three of the most notable:

Hearing aids

As many as 40 million Americans suffer some degree of hearing loss. Difficulty hearing not only poses challenges for work interactions and relationships, but it also presents a myriad of physical and mental health problems. A landmark 2011 study in JAMA Neurology found that people with mild hearing loss had nearly double the risk of developing dementia. This increased to threefold for those with moderate hearing loss and to nearly fivefold for patients with severe hearing loss. Other studies have linked hearing loss with depression, falls and even premature death.

Recent research is demonstrating that hearing aids can reverse some of these ill effects. One study, published this year in the Lancet, found that seniors at higher risk of dementia who used hearing aids had an almost 50 percent reduction in subsequent cognitive decline compared with members of the same cohort who didn’t use them. Another paper reported that people who wore hearing aids were half as likely to fall as those who didn’t. Individuals who consistently used them reduced their fall risk to less than a third compared with non-users.

Electronic devices to assist with hearing loss are hardly new; indeed, the concept has existed for more than a century. Yet it’s estimated that only 16 percent of hearing-impaired adults younger than 70 and 30 percent of hearing-impaired adults 70 and older have ever worn hearing aids.

This could improve now that the Food and Drug Administration has allowed some standard hearing aids to be sold over the counter. Requiring Medicare coverage of hearing aids could also increase access.

Another major barrier might simply be lack of awareness that such a seemingly small intervention can substantially improve not just quality of life but overall health, too.


Everyone knows that exercise is good for them, but just how much a small amount of physical activity matters might be surprising.

A recent review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that people who followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation for 150 minutes a week of moderate- or high-intensity activity reduced their risk of heart disease and stroke by 27 percent. It also reduced their risk of cancer by 12 percent and premature death by 31 percent.

Importantly, those who achieved half the recommended amount also saw substantial benefits. Just seventy-five minutes a week — or about 11 minutes a day — brought about a 17 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease, a 7 percent decrease in cancer risk and 23 percent lower chance of early death.

Many other studies on exercise have found a plethora of other health benefits, such as decreased dementia risk and improved mental well-being. There is a dose-response relationship, meaning that increased exercise results in better health outcomes. But the most significant increase is going from zero activity to some. This is key for those who do not exercise; incorporating just 11 minutes of brisk walking into their day can make a marked difference for their health.

Social connection

A 2021 Harvard study concluded that more than 1 in 3 Americans were experiencing “serious loneliness.” Not only does loneliness correlate with depression, anxiety and substance abuse, but it is also associated with diabetes, stroke and early death.

The magnitude of the effect is staggering: According to research cited by the CDC, social isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and dementia by 50 percent. Isolation increases risk of premature death as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Given how much social connection can influence health, some experts have advocated for physicians to screen every patient for loneliness by asking questions such as how many close friends they have and how often they spend time socializing. This is a good start, as are global efforts to boost community outreach such as the Friendly Bench program, which provides outdoor seating areas that connect strangers with nature.

People should also take matters into their own hands. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy spoke with me earlier in the year and gave eight practical steps people can take to rebuild social connection. Many of the steps are small, such as designating a few minutes a day to catch up with loved ones and putting aside electronics during these conversations.

This is the key point: So much of our attention and resources are spent on pharmaceutical and technological advances that represent remarkable medical progress. But there are also simple interventions that are within our power to implement and that can make as much of a difference in the length and quality of our lives as high-tech innovations.

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