Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline

Most of us feel that interactions with family and friends are a source of positive and gratifying emotions, an important part of the quality of life we experience. When the ability to interact is compromised by cognitive decline, some part of the quality of life is lost. It is not surprising that dementia and Alzheimer’s are a worry for aging adults.

A study conducted by Harris Interactive for the MetLife Foundation in 2010 found that “Alzheimer’s disease is the second most feared disease among American adults, behind only cancer.” As the leading edge of the baby boomers (those born in 1946) are approaching the average age of those who acquire hearing aids for the first time, it is not surprising that the reported association of hearing loss and dementia is a likely topic of discussion between physicians and patients with hearing loss.

A recent study by Frank Lin, M.D., and colleagues (2013) found that “Hearing loss is independently associated with accelerated cognitive decline and incident cognitive impairment in community-dwelling older adults.” This means that more people with hearing loss experience dementia than those without hearing loss, but a causative link between the two is unclear.

“Our results show that hearing loss should not be considered an inconsequential part of aging, because it may come with some serious long-term consequences to healthy brain functioning," says Lin, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the university's Bloomberg School of Public Health (Johns Hopkins Medicine, 2013).

In a more recent report, Lin and colleagues found that brain structures responsible for processing sound and speech shrink in size in people with hearing loss compared to those without loss. "If you want to address hearing loss well," Lin says, "you want to do it sooner rather than later. If hearing loss is potentially contributing to these differences we're seeing on MRI, you want to treat it before these brain structural changes take place" (Johns Hopkins Medicine, 2014).

The most common treatment for hearing loss is the use of properly fitted hearing aids. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, patients are reluctant to follow treatment advice and often delay treatment for several years after recognizing that they are having difficulty (Davis et al., 2007).

In a scholarly review article about the negative consequences of untreated hearing loss, Stig Arlinger (2003) concluded, “Uncorrected hearing loss gives rise to a poorer quality of life, related to isolation, reduced social activity, a feeling of being excluded and increased symptoms of depression.”

We are faced with a reality of a chronic health problem that is often undiagnosed and untreated (Cook & Hawkins, 2006). Medical professionals like general practitioners are in the unique position to identify and promote appropriate treatment for hearing loss. Fortunately, although age-related hearing loss isn’t a condition that is cured with medical care, it is a condition that is very successfully treated. When family members and significant others team up with medical professionals to encourage loved ones with hearing loss to seek treatment, they are more likely to seek the help they need.

References

Arlinger, S. (2003). Negative consequences of uncorrected hearing loss — a review. International Journal of Audiology, 42(2), S17–2 S20.

Cook, J. A. & Hawkins, D. B. (2006). Hearing loss and hearing aid treatment options. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 81(2), 234–237.

Davis, A., Smith, P., Ferguson, M., Stephens, D., & Gianopoulos, I. (2007). Acceptability, benefit and costs of early screening for hearing disability: A study of potential screening tests and models. Health Technology Assessment, 11, 1–294.

Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2013). Hearing Loss Accelerates Brain Function Decline in Older Adults. Retrieved from: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/
hearing_loss_accelerates_brain_function_decline_in_older_adults.

Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2014). Hearing Loss Linked to Accelerated Brain Tissue Loss. Retrieved from: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/hearing_loss_linked_to_
accelerated_brain_tissue_loss_ .

Lin, F. R., Yaffe, K., Xia, J., Xue, Q., Harris, T., Purchase-Helzner, E., … Simonsick, E. (2013). Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline in Older Adults. JAMA Internal Medicine, 173(4), 293-299.

MetLife Foundation. (2011). What America Thinks: MetLife Foundation Alzheimer’s’ Survey. Harris Interactive. Retrieved from: https://www.metlife.com/assets/cao/foundation/alzheimers-2011.pdf.

By Dennis Van Vliet, Au.D.

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