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Say That Again? Research Links Age-Related Hearing Loss to Cognitive Decline

July 28, 2022

No one likes being reminded they’re getting older, but doctors want patients age 50 and up to hear this message loud and clear - when hearing loss goes untreated, it’s linked to cognitive decline and dementia. “It’s very important for older adults to take hearing loss seriously,” says Hartford HealthCare geriatrician Taimur Habib, MD.

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We’ve known for a long time that hearing loss goes hand in hand with health issues.

For example, people with hearing loss often become isolated to avoid stressful social situations. That isolation can cause a wide range of health problems from depression to poor sleep, which leads to high blood pressure and heart problems. Now, experts have added cognitive decline to the list.

Research points to a connection between hearing loss and decreased brain function, too.

One study found that hearing loss seems to shrink parts of the brain responsible for speech comprehension. Another found that people with untreated hearing loss did worse on memory tests over time. And in 2018, a review of multiple studies showed consistent connections between age-related hearing loss and cognitive decline, cognitive impairment, and the development of dementia.

Does hearing loss cause cognitive decline, or does cognitive decline cause hearing loss?

Currently, scientists are working to understand if there’s actually a cause-and-effect relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline, and if so, which causes which. For now, the research simply highlights the connection between hearing and brain function. That awareness alone is important for health and quality of life. “These studies show the importance of getting care at the earliest signs of hearing loss,” says Dr. Habib. “Not only because you can treat the hearing loss, but because you might uncover other cognitive issues that need treatment along with it.”

Scientists are still looking into whether hearing aids can reverse cognitive decline.

It’s unclear what role, if any, hearing aids and listening devices could play in walking back the effects of cognitive decline. However, the early research is promising. “If an older adult no longer has regular social interaction, it’s possible that their brain’s speech and communication centers could shrink simply because they’re under-stimulated,” says Dr. Habib. “Hypothetically, if hearing aids allow them to reconnect with family and friends, they might be able to regain some of that brain function. We need more research to understand if this is actually the case.”

Don’t put off talking to your doctor about hearing loss.

In sum: if you’ve noticed changes in your hearing, make an appointment with your primary care physician or an audiologist today. Primary care geriatricians like Dr. Habib see many older patients who are reluctant to get help for hearing loss, often due to outdated fears about bulky hearing aids or resistance to feeling “old.” Dr. Habib points out today’s discreet options for hearing technology, and emphasized that improved hearing can ward off other issues associated with aging. “If I meet a patient in their 50s who’s just starting to notice hearing loss, they’ll probably say they don’t feel old enough for hearing aids,” says Dr. Habib. “It’s great that they feel young, because they are young! I’ll remind them that hearing aids could help keep it that way.”