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Hearing Loss and Cognition


It is estimated that 40–50% of adults over the age of 65 have a measurable hearing impairment. This rises to approximately 83% of individuals over the age of 70. Hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic medical condition among older adults, after arthritis and hypertension. Besides hearing and communication difficulties, research has found hidden effects of hearing loss that may significantly impact cognition.

A recent study from the University of Colorado reported that hearing loss can cause portions of the brain to reorganize that are usually used to process hearing. Reorganization of the brain involves a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. Nerve cells in the brain to compensate for injury and disease (i.e. hearing loss), and to adjust activities in response to changes in the environment. Neuroplasticity can cause brain regions responsible for vision, sense of touch, and higher-level processing to work harder to compensate. Over time, this increases the overall working load and listening effort of the brain in individuals who have hearing loss. This ‘effortful listening’ is associated with increased stress responses, changes in pupil dilation, and poorer behavioral performance.

Several research studies have found that individuals who used hearing aids during the earlier stages of hearing loss maintained higher cognitive abilities compared to subjects with untreated hearing loss. There is evidence linking hearing loss to negative changes in cognitive ability, especially when listeners are faced with challenging environments of speech and language.

In conclusion, hearing aids will help reduce listening effort, thus decreasing the working load of the brain. Hearing aids don’t just help your ears, they also help your brain!

References

  1. Lin FR, Yaffe K, Xia J, et al. Hearing loss and cognitive decline in older adults.JAMA Internal Med. 2013; 173(4):293-299

  2. Lin FR, Ferrucci L, An Y, et al. Association of hearing impairment with brain volume changes in older adults. NeuroImage. 2014;90:84-92.

  3. Wingfield, A., & Peelle, J. E. (2012). How does hearing loss affect the brain?. Aging health, 8(2), 107–109.