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Martin Smith

6th October 2015

Why Might There Be A Link Between Untreated Hearing Loss & Mental Decline?


Why do we think there is a link?

We now believe that loss of hearing may lead to more than just difficulty hearing sounds. It can lead to social isolation and then depression. Numerous studies over the last few years have also suggested that hearing loss may also be linked to loss of memory and cognitive ability (thinking skills).

In 2013, Johns Hopkins researchers found that declines in thinking skills happened faster to people with hearing loss than among those without it during a six-year period. There were nearly 2,000 volunteers on the study, all over age 70. The researchers estimated that it would take a hearing-impaired older adult just under eight years, on average, to develop cognitive impairment compared with 11 years for those with normal hearing.

Although studies had been undertaken prior to this one that had mixed results, this study was a stronger and more valid study. The strengths of this study compared to earlier ones were:

  • There was a large test sample
  • It included older people who had normal tests for memory and thinking at the start.
  • All volunteers had standardised hearing tests performed by professionals.
  • The same methods for testing hearing and brain function were used throughout the study.

This study and many more since then, show an association between hearing loss and cognitve decline. So far, we do not have a definitive weight of evidence to prove that hearing loss causes a decline in thinking skills. Although, the weight of evidence is gathering. The study results also raises a question that remains unanswered. Can treating hearing loss prevent or slow an age-related decline in brain function? I think that within a few years we will have clear answers to this and other questions around hearing loss and its effect on mental decline. 

Why might they be connected?

Why do we think that hearing loss and loss of cognitive ability might be connected? We know that hearing loss can lead to social isolation. Social isolation is a recognised definite risk factor for cognitive impairment and dementia. Hearing loss also leads to less brain stimulation, this is another risk factor for a decline in cognitive skills. There is also a concern that hearing loss increases cognitive load (makes the brain work harder). It’s believed that by making the brain work overtime to process and understand sound it it reduces the ability to think.

These are all valid hypotheses with a lot of validity, that is why the study evidence that is appearing is worrying. We know that only about thirty percent of people with hearing loss actually have it treated. If indeed hearing loss contributes to cognitive decline it is important for the continued health of these people that they have their hearing loss treated. So what should you do?

Check your hearing

You need to make hearing checks part of your regular health check ups. Hearing loss happens very slowly normally. So it can be difficult for you to recognise you are having a problem. However, there are some indications that should make you stop and think. If you answer yes to three or more of the questions below, it might be a good idea to have your hearing tested.

  • Do you have a problem hearing over the telephone?
  • Do you have trouble following the conversation when two or more people are talking at the same time?
  • Do people complain that you turn the volume of the radio or television up too high?
  • Do you have to strain to understand conversation?
  • Do you have trouble hearing in a noisy background?
  • Do you find yourself asking people to repeat themselves?
  • Do many people you talk to seem to mumble or not speak clearly?
  • Do you misunderstand what others are saying and respond inappropriately?
  • Do you have trouble understanding the speech of women and children?
  • Do people get annoyed because you misunderstand what they say?

If you answer yes to three or more, get your hearing tested. More importasntly, if it is found that you have a treatable hearing loss, get it treated. I think your future self will thank you for saving your brain.

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