Hearing, Aging and Mental Function

Monday, March 4th, 2013 by American Senior Fitness Association   View This Issue of Experience!

New findings published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine suggest that older adults who are hard of hearing may experience a more rapid decline in thinking skills, compared to older adults without hearing problems.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore studied 1,984 men and women in their seventies and eighties. At the beginning of the study, most of the participants (1,162) did have some hearing loss, but none exhibited signs of impaired memory or thinking ability.

During a six-year follow-up period, the participants underwent periodic testing to assess their memory, concentration and language skills. During that interim, 609 of them showed new signs of mental decline. Interestingly, the risk was 24 percent higher in those who had hearing deficits.

This study, which was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, did not prove a cause and effect relationship between hearing loss and dementia. However, it did underscore the importance of having one’s hearing checked regularly by a qualified health professional as one ages.

Hearing problems might contribute to declines in cognitive function by promoting social isolation. When it is difficult to hear what others are saying, some elders tend to avoid interaction. Previous research has connected social withdrawal to an elevated risk for dementia.

Also, it is possible that hearing loss might cause one’s brain to expend extra energy trying to process the "garbled" input that it is receiving through the ears. This could mean taking resources away from other brain functions such as memory.

Hearing loss impacts approximately two-thirds of persons over age seventy. Hearing aids and other assistive devices, for example, telephone amplifiers may be helpful. Whether successfully treating hearing impairment can slow down declines in cognitive function is a question soon to be tackled by the research team that conducted this investigation.

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