I’ve written before about the gathering evidence that sensory impairment, visual impairment and hearing loss in particular, is a risk factor for age-related cognitive decline and dementia. Now a large long-running study provides more support for the association between hearing loss and age-related cognitive decline.
The study involved 1,984 older adults (aged 75-84) whose hearing and cognition was tested at the start of the study, with cognitive performance again assessed three, five, and six years later.
Those with hearing loss showed significantly faster cognitive decline than those with normal hearing — some 30-40% faster (41% on the MMSE; 32% on the Digit Symbol Substitution Test), with rate directly related to the amount of hearing loss.
On average, older adults with hearing loss developed significant cognitive impairment 3.2 years sooner than those with normal hearing — a very significant difference indeed.
It has been suggested that increasing social isolation and loneliness may underlie some, if not all, of this association. It may also be that difficulties in hearing force the brain to devote too much of its resources to processing sound, leaving less for cognition. A third possibility is that some common factor underlies both hearing loss and cognitive decline — however, the obvious risk factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke, were taken account of in the analysis.
The findings emphasize the importance of getting help for hearing difficulties, rather than regarding them as ‘natural’ in old age.