In 2013, Johns Hopkins University researcher and epidemiologist Dr. Frank Lin led a study which was the first to evaluate the potential impact of hearing loss on mental performance.
Participants with hearing loss took recurring cognitive examinations, used to evaluate memory and thinking skills, over the span of six years. Hearing tests were also conducted over the same time frame.
What the researchers discovered was concerning: those with hearing loss had cognitive abilities that diminished 30 to 40 percent faster than those with normal hearing, even after accounting for other contributing factors like age, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
But that wasn’t everything. Not only did people with hearing loss suffer from higher rates of cognitive decline—the decline was directly associated to the severity of the hearing loss. The more serious the hearing loss, the greater impairment to brain function. Additionally, those with hearing loss displayed signals of appreciable cognitive impairment 3.2 years sooner than those with normal hearing.
The research depicts a deep connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline, but the question persists as to how hearing loss can lead to cognitive decline.
How Hearing Loss Causes Cognitive Decline
Researchers have offered three explanations for the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline:
- Hearing loss can bring about social isolation, which is a well-known risk factor for cognitive decline.
- Hearing loss forces the brain to invest too many resources to the processing of sound, at the expense of memory and thinking.
- A common underlying trauma to the brain causes both hearing loss and decreased brain function.
Possibly it’s a collection of all three. What is evident is that, regardless of the cause, the connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline is powerful.
The question now becomes, what can we do about it? Experts estimate that 27 million Americans over age 50, including two-thirds of men and women aged 70 years and older, are suffering from some type of hearing loss. Is there a way those with hearing loss can prevent or overturn cognitive decline?
How Hearing Aids Could Help
Recall the three ways that hearing loss is believed to cause hastened cognitive decline. Now, contemplate how hearing aids could resolve or correct those causes:
- Individuals with hearing aids boost their social confidence, become more socially active, and the consequences of social isolation—and its contribution to brain decline—are lessened or eliminated.
- Hearing aids protect against the overtaxing impact of struggling to hear. Mental resources are freed up for memory and thinking.
- Hearing aids present heightened sound stimulation to the brain, helping to re-create neural connections.
Admittedly, this is mainly theoretical, and the big question is: does utilizing hearing aids, in fact, slow or protect against accelerated mental decline, and can we measure this?
The answer may be discovered in an upcoming study by Dr. Frank Lin, the lead researcher of the initial study. Lin is working on the first clinical trial to study whether hearing aids can be objectively measured to prevent or minimize brain decline.
Stay tuned for the results of this study, which we’ll cover on our blog once published.