Memory and Hearing Loss

We all forget things from time to time. This begins early in life – many a five-year-old has “forgotten” that it’s bedtime or mom said they could only have one cookie – and misplaced car keys plague adults of all ages. Serious memory loss is worrisome, but usually not an issue until later in life. There are certain risk factors, and one of them appears to be hearing loss.

The Link Between Hearing and Cognition

older couple sitting on a bench looking at the landscape

About one in five people has hearing loss in San Diego. 90 percent of these patients benefit from hearing aids, but not everybody diagnosed with a hearing impairment chooses to seek treatment. These folks, in particular, have higher odds of developing memory loss and other cognitive disorders.

Results from multiple research studies show a positive link between hearing loss and memory impairment. One of the studies referenced most often was led by a team of researchers from Johns-Hopkins University and tracked 2,000 older adults over a six-year period. At the outset, they showed no signs of cognitive impairment. Hearing and cognitive tests were given In year five and results were compared with their baseline scores.

The results, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2013, found that those individuals who started the study with the worst hearing loss (defined as an impairment bad enough to interfere with conversational ability on a daily basis) were 24 percent more likely to experience a decline in cognitive ability when compared to people with normal hearing. For many with poor cognitive test scores, the first symptom was memory impairment.

The reason for this correlation between hearing loss and memory impairment isn’t definitive, but researchers are convinced one of the predominant factors has to do with the role played by the brain in the hearing process. When you have difficulty hearing, your brain works hard to fill in the gaps by diverting resources from other areas, such as memory and cognition. The worse your hearing loss, the harder your brain must work. Not surprisingly, patients with more severe hearing loss have higher incidences of memory impairment and cognitive decline.

Social withdrawal and isolation also contribute to a decline in memory. People with hearing loss often retreat from participation in social activities in order to avoid experiencing stress and fatigue caused by their inability to follow along with conversations, especially in environments where background noise is an issue. A lack of mental stimulation causes the brain to shrink, resulting in changes that affect memory and cognitive functioning.

There is a silver lining, however: hearing aids have been shown to reduce rates of cognitive decline. Patients who treat their hearing loss by wearing hearing aids score higher on memory and cognition tests and are less likely to develop dementia.

If you’re experiencing memory loss in San Diego and concerned that hearing loss might be responsible, schedule an appointment with an audiologist. It’s never too late to treat your impairment!


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