How hearing loss and cognitive decline are related

Last update: May 15, 2023
Reading time: 3 minutes
By Brain Matters

You probably know that people nowadays are getting older than ever before, that is because our living conditions and medical knowledge are better than in the past. Unfortunately, getting older does increase inconveniences or diseases of old age. For example, hearing loss or cognitive decline and later dementia. Therefore, the challenge right now is not to live as long as possible but to grow old pleasantly. 

Fortunately, there are simple solutions for some of these inconveniences, such as wearing a hearing aid. But correcting for other impairments, such as cognitive decline or even dementia, is a little less obvious. In that case, prevention is a better approach. You've probably heard that we ourselves can reduce risk of cognitive decline by, for example, exercising enough or not smoking. But did you know that hearing loss is also an important factor? According to a 2020 report, even more important percentage-wise than smoking and exercising combined!

Two recent studies suggest that we can stop cognitive decline by compensating for hearing loss with hearing devices. These studies measured the cognitive abilities of people with severe hearing loss. To do this, the researchers developed a cognitive test that people without hearing could perform well. This test is called the "Repeatable Battery for the Assessment of Neuropsychological Status for Hearing-impaired individuals" (RBANS-H). In this test, all items are (also) presented visually. Subjects had their cognition measured at the time they were severely hearing-impaired or deaf, but also 1 year after they received a cochlear implant. A cochlear implant is a device that directly sends signals to the auditory nerve which the ear cannot do the natural way anymore. This ensured the subjects could hear again. The researchers found that their subjects also significantly improved in their cognitive abilities 1 year after they could hear again. 

Even though it was observed back in 1989 that hearing loss appeared to be strongly related to the risk of developing dementia, researchers have not yet figured out exactly how this relationship works. It could be that in the case when a person has hearing loss, many cognitive resources are devoted to listening, which will no longer be available for other cognitive processes. These other cognitive processes are therefore not used or trained. But perhaps there is another factor that accounts for this relationship. Possibly hearing loss causes people to become more socially isolated, which can lead to cognitive decline. 

Now that this research seems to show that the relationship might indeed be causal, researchers can look further into what the connection looks like. One thing that is clear is that when you choose a hearing aid to compensate for hearing loss, you get more than just better hearing in return. So get your ears checked on time!

Author: Loes Beckers


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