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Michael Sultan: Oral hearing aids

The world of dentistry is never still for long, there are always new techniques, products and ideas being created and explored. For example, the UK has an increasingly aged population, meaning that the average age of an individual residing in the nation is steadily getting higher.

In fact, estimates suggest that the number of people aged over 85 will increase dramatically over the next 25 years, with the figure doubling from 1.3 million to 2.6 million (1). How will this affect dentistry? We’re already well aware that people are more likely to lose teeth as they advance in years and as we get older our bodies tend to require extra attention and care.

And there’s more, other problems such as hearing loss also become more common. It’s believed that 11 million people in the UK are already affected by hearing loss, making it the second most common disability, of which eight million sufferers are aged 60 or over.

But what if there were a way to combat tooth loss and hearing loss in a single solution? I recently came across an article about hearing devices being incorporated into dental implants. Currently just a theory, however the reasoning behind this concept is that because dental implants osseointegrate into the jawbone, they could be used to send vibrations through the bone to the inner ear.

People with hearing loss who need a replacement tooth would be able to solve both problems with one procedure, restoring hearing and tooth function in one step (2). While research is still ongoing on the finer points there have been hearing aids that click onto the natural teeth and make use of the natural dentition’s bone conductivity.

To measure this, researchers tested the sound conductivity of dental implants compared to natural teeth and the mastoid bone (which some hearing aids already use). Interestingly, this revealed that dental implants were just as good – and sometimes even better – at conducting sound compared to natural teeth and the mastoid bone.

On the other hand, we have to appreciate the relatively niche nature of a combined solution, and the fact that mouth-based hearings aids are not necessarily going to perform better than ear-located alternatives. There is an argument for increased comfort here – as dental implants are a long-term solution, there’s every chance they could be more comfortable for users than a hearing device that sits behind the ear.

However, there’s the problem with maintenance and repair of the device, depending on how it works. If a hearing aid stops working but is incorporated into a dental implant, would rectifying any problems involve removing the crown (or even the full implant) and then having to replant it? Dental implants already come with their associated risks, so this could be problematic if peri-implantitis or any other complications occur.

So, where does this leave us? Personally, I think there is definite potential for a product that fulfils a function as both a tooth replacement and a hearing aid, but there will need to be a lot more research and design work to make this a reality.

Even so, as our population steadily gets older it is more likely that there will be more and more people suffering from both tooth and hearing loss, so hearing aids in dental implants may very well be an idea that could catch on.

Author:

Michael Sultan is the founder and principal of endodontic referral practice EndoCare, and is a regular contributor to Dental Review. For more information, call 020 7224 0999 or visit www.endocare.co.uk 

References:

1) The Health Foundation. Our Ageing Population. Link: https://www.health.org.uk/publications/our-ageing-population#:~:text=Key%20points,health%20and%20social%20care%20services. [Last accessed October 22].

2) IFL Science. You Could One Day Wear Hearing Aids In Your Mouth Thanks To Dental Implant Technology. Link: https://www.iflscience.com/you-could-one-day-wear-hearing-aids-in-your-mouth-thanks-to-dental-implant-technology-65557 [Last accessed October 22].