Loss of hearing represents more than just difficulty hearing sounds. It can lead to social isolation and depression. A new study suggests that hearing loss may also be linked to loss of memory and thinking skills.
In a study published online yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine, Johns Hopkins researchers found that declines in thinking skills happened faster during a six-year period among people with hearing loss than among those without it. Among the nearly 2,000 volunteers, all over age 70, those with hearing loss we also likely to develop “cognitive impairment,” defined as a substantial reduction in the score on a key test called the Modified Mini-Mental State Examination. The researchers estimated that it would take a hearing-impaired older adult just under eight years, on average, to develop cognitive impairment compared with 11 years for those with normal hearing.
This isn’t the first time that researchers have explored possible connections between hearing loss and brain function. Some saw what the Hopkins team saw, while others found no connection between hearing loss and thinking skills. The strengths of this study compared to earlier ones are:
• It included older people who had normal tests for memory and thinking at the start.
• All volunteers had standardized hearing tests performed by professionals.
• The same methods for testing hearing and brain function were used throughout the study.
Keep in mind that this new study shows an association. It does not prove that hearing loss causes a decline in thinking skills. The work also raises a huge question: can treating hearing loss prevent or slow an age-related decline in brain function?
What’s the connection?
If hearing and thinking skills are truly connected, there are several plausible reasons that might be so.
Hearing loss can lead to greater social isolation, something to which older people are already prone, and social isolation is a definite risk factor for cognitive impairment and dementia. Like impaired vision, diminished hearing can lead to less brain stimulation, another risk factor for a decline in thinking skills. It’s also possible that by making the brain work overtime to process the signals it is getting from the ears, hearing loss pulls away energy from the “thinking” parts of the brain.
Check your hearing
Up to two-thirds of adults older than 70 have some hearing loss. Doctors don’t routinely check for this problem, so it may be up to you to identify it. Since it often comes on slowly, you may be unaware you are having a problem.
Answering “yes” to three or more of the questions below, from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, suggests that it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor. He or she may refer you for a formal hearing test.
- Do you have a problem hearing over the telephone?
- Do you have trouble following the conversation when two or more people are talking at the same time?
- Do people complain that you turn the volume of the radio or television up too high?
- Do you have to strain to understand conversation?
- Do you have trouble hearing in a noisy background?
- Do you find yourself asking people to repeat themselves?
- Do many people you talk to seem to mumble or not speak clearly?
- Do you misunderstand what others are saying and respond inappropriately?
- Do you have trouble understanding the speech of women and children?
- Do people get annoyed because you misunderstand what they say?
Related Information: Hearing Loss: A guide to prevention and treatment
Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren
So that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed. Romans 15:32 NIV
Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. Psalm 119:111 NIV
But godliness with contentment is great gain. 1 Timothy 6:6 NIV
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. Hebrews 11:6 NIV
For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory. Psalm 149:4 NIV
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 1 Timothy 6:17 NIV
The father of a righteous child has great joy; a man who fathers a wise son rejoices in him. Proverbs 23:24 NIV
I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. Psalm 119:14 NIV
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Matthew 17:5 NIV
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