It really doesn’t seem fair: Hearing loss, a troublesome fact of life for more than 48 million Americans, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America, may increase the risk of cognitive problems and even dementia. By the time Americans reach their 70s, two-thirds have hearing loss.
“The general perception is that hearing loss is a relatively inconsequential part of aging,” says Frank Lin, an otologist and epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. But recent findings, he says, suggest that it may play a much more important role in brain health than we’ve previously thought.
Adults with hearing loss are significantly more likely than adults with normal hearing to develop dementia. — Istock
Fortunately, there’s a potential upside. If this connection — shown in several recent and well-regarded studies — holds up, it raises the possibility that treating hearing loss more aggressively could help stave off cognitive decline and dementia. Lin and other researchers have several theories about the possible explanation for the link between hearing and dementia, although they aren’t yet sure which of them — if any — will prove true.
Lin is the author of several recent studies pointing to a link between hearing and cognitive problems ranging from mild impairment all the way to dementia.
In a 2013 study, he and his colleagues tracked the overall cognitive abilities (including concentration, memory and planning skills) of nearly 2,000 older adults whose average age was 77. After six years, those who began the study with hearing loss severe enough to interfere with conversation were 24 percent more likely than those with normal hearing to see their cognitive abilities diminish. Essentially, the researchers said, hearing loss seemed to speed up age-related cognitive decline.
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