Scientists have known for years that there is a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline. Multiple studies have confirmed this, most recently a long-term French study published in 2018 that found an increased prevalence of dementia in individuals with untreated hearing loss. It has long been assumed that dementia was most likely with patients experiencing age-related hearing loss, but new research shows that even early-stage hearing loss is associated with cognitive decline.
Even Early Hearing Loss Leads to Cognitive Impairment
For the approximately 25,000 individuals with hearing loss in Topeka, communication difficulties aren’t the only challenges they face. Hearing loss increases the risks of a number of physical, social and psychological health effects, with one of the most prevalent being cognitive decline. This makes patients more likely to experience memory impairment, confusion and dementia. Experts have long assumed old age played a role because studies have shown that people with age-related hearing loss are more likely to suffer from impaired cognition, but this research has only looked at people who were diagnosed with hearing loss, defined as an inability to hear sounds lower than 25 decibels (dB)—equivalent to the sound of a whisper. The problem with this methodology is that it’s completely arbitrary. Physicians have been using the 25 dB threshold under the assumption that cognitive impairment wouldn’t occur until patients reached this milestone—but nobody had ever set out to test whether that was actually true.
The Direct Correlation Between Hearing Loss and Cognitive Impairment
Researchers from Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, led by Justin S. Golub, MD, MS, assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery and a hearing specialist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and New York-Presbyterian, examined data from 6,451 adults enrolled in two ethnically-diverse epidemiologic studies. The patients, whose average age was 59, were given hearing and cognition testing. The team found that for every 10 dB decrease in hearing, there was a corresponding decrease in cognitive ability. Much to the surprise of Golub and his colleagues, the most significant decrease in cognitive ability happened in those whose hearing loss was just beginning to set in—patients diagnosed with only a 10 dB loss in hearing. These results were observed across the entire hearing spectrum. This emphasizes the importance of seeking treatment for even mild forms of hearing loss. The sooner, the better.
It’s important to note that this study didn’t look at whether hearing loss caused cognitive impairment. It’s possible, Golub’s team acknowledges, that aging might still play a role in the early decline of both hearing and cognition. “But it’s also possible that people who don’t hear well tend to socialize less and, as a result, they have fewer stimulating conversations,” Golub says. “Over many years, this could have a negative impact on cognition.” The researchers have suggested creating a new category, borderline hearing loss, to describe a condition in which the patient experiences a reduction in hearing ability of 16 to 25 dB.
The exact mechanics may be unclear, but audiologists in Topeka do stress the benefits of treating hearing loss with hearing aids. Some studies have indicated that hearing aids reduce cognitive decline rates; a current study by the National Institutes of Health is underway to confirm whether hearing aids can slow cognitive decline in patients with age-related hearing loss. Regardless of the outcome of that research, hearing aids do improve communication ability and lead to a better quality of life…at least according to nine out of 10 hearing aid users in Kansas.
To learn more about the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline, call an audiologist in Topeka.