Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline

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June 22, 2017

The intake of sound is only one part of the very complex process of hearing. Once our ears receive the signal, our brain must then process what that signal means. Does it trigger a memory? Is there a danger? If a response is required, what type of response? The hearing of sound and the cognition involved in processing that sound are intimately linked.

We deal with complex processes all the time. Our cars, our computers, our appliances, our heating and air conditioning systems – complexity is everywhere. We know from experience, and from many years of paying for repairs, that when one part of a complex system degrades or fails, the rest of the system is impacted. The same is true with hearing.

A recent body of research, including a study from Johns Hopkins Medicine, points to a connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline in older adults. The researchers called the results “clinically significant”. Study participants with hearing loss showed a 30% to 40% accelerated rate of cognitive decline over a 6-year period when compared to individuals with healthy hearing.

Lead investigator and Johns Hopkins otologist and epidemiologist Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D. said, “Our results show that hearing loss should not be considered an inconsequential part of aging, because it may come with some serious long-term consequences to healthy brain functioning.”

The researchers cite social isolation and loneliness as two potential causes for the link. The mental strain of living with an isolating condition may also lead to an increase in depression and anxiety for those with hearing deficiencies. The impact of mental health on physical wellbeing has been thoroughly documented.

Another potential cause was identified in the research, as well. There is a possibility that the extra effort required for the brain to compensate for poor sound signal quality is causing the cognitive decline identified in the study. Quite simply, the brain must work so much harder to process the auditory information it receives from a damaged ear. The system that has worked seamlessly and fluidly for decades now has to adjust and compensate every single time it hears a sound. That extra energy may be diverting resources used in memory and cognition. Those in the hearing healthcare field have long said that the ears provide the auditory data, but the brain does the true hearing.

Based on these findings, it is time to stop accepting hearing loss as a small and normal side effect of the aging process. It is not a small side effect, it is a large issue affecting the deeper cognitive and linguistic function of millions and millions of Americans. Hearing loss is one of the most untreated medical conditions today and it doesn’t have to be that way.

The cars and appliances we’ve fixed over our lifetimes have taught us that the sooner we address the issue, the better (and sometimes cheaper) the results. If you or a family member are dealing with hearing loss, make an appointment for a hearing evaluation today.





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