A new study published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery found that early stage hearing loss may be linked to cognitive decline. While other research has shown a connection between age related hearing loss and higher risks of cognitive decline, this is the first study to look at early stage hearing loss, when hearing is still considered normal.
Hearing loss and cognition is not a new topic; researchers have been looking into the connection for years. Previous studies have only examined patients with diagnosed hearing loss, defined by an inability to hear sounds under 25 decibels (dB).
But according to Justin S. Golub, M.D., M.S., lead author of the new study,
“Physicians in this field have used 25 dB—about the loudness of a whisper—to define the border between normal hearing and mild hearing loss in adults, but this level is arbitrary… It has been assumed that cognitive impairment wouldn’t begin until people passed this threshold. But no one actually looked at whether this was true.”
Dr. Golub’s Research
Researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons looked at data from 6,451 patients with an average age of 59. Each volunteer participated in cognitive and hearing testing.
The results revealed that for every decrease of 10 dB in hearing, there was also a significant decrease in cognitive ability; this pattern was seen across the entire spectrum of hearing.
The most surprising result from the study was that the largest decrease in cognitive decline occurred in participants whose hearing had just started to become impaired, about 10 dB below what is considered normal.
Identifying Hearing Loss Early Matters
“Most people with hearing loss believe they can go about their lives just fine without treatment, and maybe some can,” explained Golub, “but hearing loss is not benign. It has been linked to social isolation, depression, cognitive decline, and dementia. Hearing loss should be treated. This study suggests the earlier, the better.”
Can Hearing Aids Help?
It is important to note that this research did not look into the causation between hearing loss and cognitive decline, as a decrease in both could be related to aging.
Golub notes that “It’s also possible that people who don’t hear well tend to socialize less and, as a result, they have fewer stimulating conversations. Over many years, this could have a negative impact on cognition. If that’s the case, preventing or treating hearing loss could reduce dementia.”
A recent analysis published in The Lancet estimates that treating hearing loss with hearing aids could decrease the incidence of dementia by more than 9 percent.
Another new study is testing if hearing aids can slow cognitive decline in older patients with age-related hearing loss.
With new research on the horizon, more will soon be known about the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline. The experts at Augusta ENT are here to help you stay safe and hear better.