Hearing aids may help slow cognitive decline

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An African American senior couple hiking through the woods. They are wearing pants and plaid shirts, carrying walking sticks and backpacks.

One of the most common conditions affecting older adults is cognitive decline, specifically deterioration in memory, attention, thinking and concentration, as well as use of language and other mental functions.

For those with hearing loss, however, the encouraging news is that the use of hearing aids can actually reduce the risk of cognitive decline as you age.

A recent study, conducted at the Bloomberg School of Health at Johns Hopkins University, tested participants with some degree of age-related hearing loss. Participants were evaluated in areas such as memory, learning, language and attention, beginning in 1990. Although all of the subjects showed an overall decline in scores through the years, the study showed that those who did not use hearing aids had the greatest decline in cognitive abilities. On the other hand, those who wore hearing aids had scores that were only slightly below those of people with normal hearing, after 20 years.

In addition to the key role that hearing aids can play in minimizing cognitive decline, this study also supports that hearing aids can reduce social isolation, depression and anxiety caused by untreated hearing loss. Hearing aids can significantly improve the quality of life for millions of adults, which in turn can translate into billions of dollars in health care cost savings.

There are several possible reasons for cognitive decline as related to hearing loss.

  • Ear-brain connection. One consideration is that hearing loss disrupts the normal relationship between the ear and the brain. If the brain is constantly trying to hear and make sense of indistinct sounds, processes such as attention, memory and thinking will suffer.
  • Isolation. Another possibility is that there is often a self-imposed social isolation that accompanies hearing loss. Studies have shown that social contact is an essential part of staying mentally healthy as we age.
  • Atrophy. A third potential reason for cognitive decline in those with hearing loss can be atrophy. This deterioration may occur in the part of the brain that processes sound, so if it is not used as much it begins to weaken.

Whatever the reason for cognitive decline, one thing is certain: healthy hearing is essential to maintaining good mental function. Having your hearing tested should be part of your regular annual physical. If hearing loss is identified, the specially trained audiologists at the JFK Center for Audiology, part of the JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute, can schedule an appointment for a comprehensive hearing test and discuss treatment options.

Visit JFKAudiology.org for an online self-assessment test.

For more information, call 732-321-7063.

Submitted by Dr. Virginia Toth, AuD, CCC/A, NJ Audiology License 176, NJ Hearing Aid Dispenser 542, Center for Audiology, JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute, 65 James St., Edison.