Hearing Loss & Cognitive Decline

Hearing Loss & Cognitive Decline

As we get on in years, many of our normal functions show signs of wear and tear. Years of using our bodies, minds, and senses put the strain on our abilities, and it is truly remarkable that we continue to function as we do, particularly at the long end of life! It might seem like a coincidence of aging that mental and sensory abilities, including hearing, are strained at the same time. 

Yet, some current research shows that there may be more than a coincidental relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline. Indeed, most people who ascend beyond the age of 70 have some form of hearing loss, and many experience mild cognitive decline, as well. However, research shows that those who have untreated hearing loss actually experience more cognitive decline and even have higher rates of dementia. In addition, once the cognitive strain begins to take place, hearing loss is related to a faster rate of decline. 

Let’s look at some of the research as a way to understand just how important it is to get treatment for hearing loss

The Research

One of the keys to studying cognitive decline and hearing loss is to find comparable groups to study. As we know, both conditions are very common among older people, so it is possible that age is the causal factor behind both of them. 

In order to test this theory, Dr. Frank Lin, an otolaryngologist at the Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health compared people of the same age who had other characteristics in common. With these categories of people aligned, it became possible to know if hearing loss was directly related to cognitive decline or if it was connected through another factor. Indeed, the results of the study showed a direct connection. 

The study recruited 1,984 participants and found that those with hearing loss were 24% more likely to experience cognitive decline in the next 6 years than their age-based counterparts who did not have hearing loss. This study is not alone among the research conducted by Dr. Frank Lin and others. These reports show time and again that those who have hearing loss are at a greater risk of cognitive decline and even dementia. 

The Explanation

Although they are unclear how the connection works, exactly, they have solid evidence for a relationship between these two conditions. Some suspect that the link has to do with the use of language. When a person has functional hearing ability, spoken language comes through clearly and continuously, making it possible to treat speech as a single, continuous thread of meaning. However, when hearing ability is compromised, that speech is broken up into fragmented, discontinuous syllables and small units of speech. 

This puzzle causes strain on the brain, and some would liken the process to trying to put together that puzzle even though all the pieces are not available. Without all the necessary sound to decipher, speech becomes a mélange of random sound. It comes as no surprise that the brain strains to understand what is being said, but researchers disagree about the way that this mental struggle translates into more general cognitive decline. Some frame this connection in terms of cognitive load, while others have actually witnessed a shift in the regions of the brain that are devoted to hearing versus complex thinking. In either case, the relationship is borne out in study after study. 

With such a preponderance of evidence for the connection between cognitive decline and hearing loss, these researchers also point toward the potential benefit of hearing aids to fill in the gaps in spoken language. Once a person is able to regain the ability to hear entire sentences, the mind can rest easier in the process of making sense out of sound. 

Seeking Treatment for Hearing Loss

For this reason among many others, the time is now to pursue a hearing test if you are concerned that you might have developed hearing loss. In addition, if you have a loved one who seems to struggle to understand you during conversations, take the opportunity to encourage a hearing test. Once you have the results of the test, we can recommend a line of hearing aids that can help restore mental ease.