Between 2000-2015 the number of Americans with hearing loss has doubled, bringing it close to 48 million. With the aging baby boomer population, that number will continue to climb in the coming years.
In recent studies, researchers have been exploring a possible link between hearing loss and a decline in cognitive function. The exact link between hearing loss and cognitive decline is not yet fully understood, but there are three common theories.
The first is “cognitive load.” Distorted sounds being transmitted up the auditory pathway causes the brain to allocate more resources into processing those sounds, to the detriment of other processes like memory and thinking. According to the research, even a patient with mild, untreated hearing loss will notice these effects. It is suspected that the increased effort it takes to perceive and process the sound reduced the capacity for memory and storage if the information.
The second theory involves brain atrophy. Hearing impairment may contribute to accelerated rates of atrophy in parts of the brain that process sound. Those parts of the brain also play a role in memory and sensory integration. Results of a study by researchers from Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Aging found that although the brain becomes smaller with age, the shrinkage seems to be fast-tracked in older adults with hearing loss. Another study, conducted by Brandeis University Professor of Neuroscience, Dr. Arthur Wingfield, along with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and Washington University in St. Louis, has used MRI to look at the effect that hearing loss has on both brain activity and structure. Their study found that people with poorer hearing had less gray matter in the auditory cortex, a region of the brain that is necessary to support speech comprehension. Dr. Wingfield and his colleagues suspect the patients hearing loss played a casual role in this result.
The third explanation is social isolation. People who have a hard time hearing often withdraw because it’s so difficult to communicate with others. The prevalence of moderate to severe depression was higher among U.S. adults aged 18 or older with self-reported hearing impairment (11.4 percent) compared to those without hearing impairment (5.9 percent).
While there is plenty left to learn about the relationship between hearing loss, memory, and cognition, treating hearing loss has many proven benefits, including increased socialization, less fatigue, and overall improvement in communication ability. Hearing loss should not be thought of as an inconsequential part of the aging process. If untreated, it may come with some long-term consequences. It is reasonable for patients with hearing loss to get their hearing tested annually. If there is a hearing loss, it is best to take it seriously and treat it.
To learn more or refer a patient to Brookwood Baptist Health Specialty Care – Ear, Nose & Throat, call (205) 877-2950 or visit bbhcarenetwork.com/ear-nose-throat.
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