December 15, 2018
Close-up of an older man cupping ear, trying to hear.
Wellness Tip

Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline

by Berkeley Wellness  

Another reason to get a hearing aid if you need one: Age-related hearing loss is associated with increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia, a recent analysis of 40 studies from 12 countries has confirmed.

The analysis, which appeared in JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery in February 2018, linked hearing loss to modestly increased risk of cognitive impairment and dementia and to declines in all aspects of cognition, including episodic memory and executive function.

There are many possible explanations for the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline. For instance, the two conditions may share an underlying mechanism, such as a decline in the vascular system, or hearing loss may be a marker for general physiological decline and frailty. Hearing loss may also compromise cognitive processes because so much effort is needed to process auditory information. And it often increases social isolation, which is a risk factor for cognitive decline, presumably due to reduced stimulation. While none of the studies in this analysis assessed whether hearing aids help protect cognition, the researchers cited other research indicating that the aids may have such benefits in older people who are still cognitively intact, though not in those who already have dementia.

As the accompanying commentary put it, the link between hearing loss and cognition “suggests the potential for correcting hearing loss so that older patients can function better cognitively with improved social involvement, quality of life, and lifetime cognitive health,” though further research is needed on this.

Hearing aids can indeed slow cognitive decline in people who are hearing-impaired, according to a study in the Journal the American Geriatrics Society in April 2018. The study followed 2,040 people (ages 50 and older) who started using hearing aids over an 18-year period. Cognitive testing showed that after the participants began using hearing aids, their memory scores declined more slowly than before using the aids.

"Public health efforts to increase access to quality hearing health care might delay the onset of cognitive impairment and prove a successful preventive intervention to reduce the impending dementia epidemic," the study concluded.

Also see Hearing Loss: Don't Suffer in Silence.