ORANGE — Q. Aunt Kamillia mentioned during our last visit that as her hearing has declined, she doesn’t feel “quite as clearheaded and confident.” She also noted that she’s venturing out less and sometimes feels fearful when she does. Although I don’t fully understand what’s going on, I am certain this wonderful 88-year-old lady will need help to stay in her apartment. Can hearing loss affect cognitive functions?
A. Older adults with hearing loss are more likely to develop problems thinking and remembering than seniors whose hearing is normal, according to a recent study by hearing experts at the Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health in Baltimore. You should suggest a doctor’s appointment for Aunt Kamillia.
In the study, volunteers between the ages of 75 and 84 with hearing loss underwent repeated cognition tests during six years and saw their cognitive abilities decline some 30 percent to 40 percent faster than in those whose hearing was normal. Levels of declining brain function were directly related to the amount of hearing loss, the researchers said. On average, older adults with hearing loss developed a significant impairment in their cognitive abilities 3.2 years sooner than those with normal hearing.
According to senior study investigator and Johns Hopkins otologist and epidemiologist Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., all study participants had normal brain function when the study began in 2001, and were initially tested for hearing loss, which hearing specialists define as recognizing only those sounds louder than 25 decibels. “Our results show that hearing loss should not be considered an inconsequential part of aging, because it may come with some serious long-term consequences to healthy brain functioning,” Dr. Lin said.
Aunt Kamillia is not alone. Dr. Lin estimates that as many as 27 million Americans over age 50, including two-thirds of men and women aged 70 years and older, suffer from some form of hearing loss.