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Mild cognitive decline is an expected and natural part of the aging process. As one ages, it can become difficult to remember details, learn new things, and make decisions quickly. There are also cognitive changes that can happen that are more severe, impacting one’s ability to navigate on a daily basis. Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are examples of severe cognitive impairment that profoundly impact memory, language, and thinking ability.
Listening, processing, and understanding speech involves a complex process that requires full use of auditory and cognitive systems. These processes and impact of impairment have been studied consistently since the 1980s. Historically, research has shown a close relationship between more severe cognitive decline and hearing loss. Today, there is growing research that shows that hearing aids can help mitigate cognitive decline.
Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline
There is substantial research that shows a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline. In a 2019 study conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, researchers found that hearing loss was associated with accelerated cognitive decline. Published in Journal of Alzheimer’s and Dementia, researchers examined self-reporting hearing loss and cognitive decline over an 8 year period for over 10,000 people. They found that compared with those with no hearing loss, the risk of cognitive decline (self-reported) was:
- 30% higher among men with mid hearing loss
- 42% to 54% higher among men with moderate or severe hearing loss
Though this is an area that is intensely researched, it still remains unclear if hearing loss causes cognitive impairment. However, these findings support a larger body of research that associates hearing loss with significantly higher risk of cognitive decline (as well as a larger magnitude of decline).
What does the latest research say?
Another area of research is on the impact of hearing aids on cognitive decline. There is emerging research showing that wearing hearing aids can improve brain function and delay cognitive decline. This includes two recent studies:
Published in the Science Daily in February, a study conducted at the University of Melbourne assessed the impact of hearing aids on cognitive function. Researchers examined the hearing and cognitive function of nearly 100 participants (aged 62-82) before the use of hearing aids and again 18 months after using hearing aids. They found that:
- “97% of participants showed either clinically significant improvement or stability in executive function (mental ability to plan, organize information and initiate tasks)”
- A 2018 study published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society, examined data from the Health and
- Retirement Study which evaluated cognitive performance every 2 years for 18 years for over 2,00 people (age 50 and above). They found that there was a reduction rate in cognitive decline based on results from memory tests.
- This is among the latest research revealing that hearing aids enhances brain function and can delay cognitive decline. Though more and more research share these findings, hearing loss is too often untreated.
Hearing loss often happens gradually so it can be easily overlooked or ignored. This leads to underdiagnosing (and undertreating) hearing loss which can significantly impact various aspects of a person’s life. There are millions of people who could benefit from treatment, specifically the use of hearing aids, that do not use them. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, less than 30% of adults (age 70 and older) with hearing loss use hearing aids. This rate decreases to 16% among adults aged 20-69. This illustrates the prevalence of untreated hearing loss which can worsen impaired hearing, other existing medical conditions, and overall health.
Addressing hearing loss is simple and can improve the quality of your life. The first step is to have your hearing assessed by a hearing healthcare specialist. This involves a noninvasive process that tests your hearing ability in both ears. This exam determines any impairment to hearing, the severity, and specific type. Fortunately, there are several useful ways that hearing loss is treated. The most common treatment is hearing aids. These are small, electronic devices that are worn in or behind the ear. Hearing aids absorb, amplify, and process sound enabling people to hear better.