The Link Between Hearing & Cognitive Decline

Declining health is just one price we pay for getting older. But, hey – it beats the alternative, right? One health condition strongly linked to aging is hearing loss. One-third of people 65 and older in El Paso has hearing loss; that number jumps to half by the age of 75. Living with a hearing impairment is challenging enough; if left untreated, it can be downright dangerous, increasing your risk of cognitive decline and other health problems.

Hearing and Cognition

a box full of old photographs

The fact that there is a link between hearing loss and cognitive impairment is hardly surprising. Numerous studies have found a correlation, including one published a little over a month ago. The February 12, 2019 issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Series A Medical Sciences provided new evidence of a link between the two.

The study was led by Linda K. McEvoy, Ph.D., a professor in the Radiology and Family Medicine and Public Health departments. 1,164 participants  (average age: 73.5) were followed for an extended period of time, as long as 24 years. Each subject was given hearing and cognition tests at some point between 1992 and 1996 and received up to five additional cognitive assessments every four years or so on average afterwards. None of them wore hearing aids during the course of the study.

According to the published results, nearly half of the test subjects had mild hearing impairment. 16.8 percent were diagnosed with moderate to severe hearing loss. Every subject with hearing loss scored lower on their cognitive assessment tests; those with the most severe hearing loss scored the lowest.

One surprising finding was the role education appears to play. Those participants with mild hearing loss who did not receive a college education scored lower on their cognition tests than individuals who had attained higher education levels. There was no such disparity in subjects with moderate to severe hearing loss, leading McEvoy to theorize that higher education might provide a “cognitive reserve” to offset the effects of mild hearing loss, but it isn’t enough to counteract more severe forms of hearing impairment.

Another thing that surprised researchers was the fact that a lack of social engagement did not correspond with higher rates of cognitive impairment; this runs counter to the long-held assumption that there was a correlation between a lack of mental stimulation and an increase in cognitive decline.

This study should alert physicians to the importance of stressing to their older patients the risks associated with hearing loss and cognitive impairment and urging them to have routine hearing screenings in order to treat any hearing loss as early as possible.

If you are noticing a problem with your hearing, make an appointment with an El Paso audiologist at your earliest convenience.