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When Cognition & Hearing Loss Collide
By Jennifer Bradley, Staff Writer
If you find a loved one asking
repetitive questions, becoming more confused and
forgetful, you may assume they have dementia, but the
cause could be hearing loss.
While it’s not “new” news, study results reported in the
January 2013 Journal of the Medical Association Internal
Medicine are confirming what many professionals have
believed: that cognitive loss and hearing loss collide
on a large scale.
The study, from the John Hopkins University School of
Medicine, is the first of its kind and is viewing
long-term brain function impacted by hearing loss. When
the study began in 2001, the 1,984 participants (in the
age range of 75 to 84) were in good health and had no
cognitive impairment. Over a period of six years,
hearing and brain cognition tests were administered.
Study researchers determined that brain ability was in
direct correlation to hearing loss. Those who did have
hearing loss suffered more substantial cognitive
impairment more than three years sooner than others with
normal hearing levels.
When the study commenced, 1,162 of the participants had
some degree of hearing loss. Sixty-six percent had mild
cases, 33 percent moderate and only one percent severe.
The standard cognitive tests (Modified Mini-Mental State
Exam and Digit Symbol Substitution Test) given
periodically over the course of the six-year study found
that 609 people developed cognitive issues.
Hearing loss is considered one of the most undertreated
conditions in older adults, and this study now shows why
caregivers should be even more aware if a loved one is
having hearing problems. Dr. Frank Lin headed the
research. He is an otologist and epidemiologist, and has
spent much time documenting the connection between
hearing problems, falls and dementia symptoms.
He found that cognitive diminishment was 41 percent
greater in the seniors with hearing problems. Dr. Lin
explains that research says the link of cognitive loss
and hearing loss can be from social isolation and
loneliness, which is a professional established risk for
cognitive struggles in the elderly. When it’s harder to
hear and participate, the trend has shown declining
invitations and social mingling.
He also reports that the brain may be forced to devote a
large amount of energy to processing sound in loved ones
with hearing loss. He says that hearing loss means that
the inner ear is no longer as good at encoding signals
with accuracy. “So the brain gets a very garbled
message,” he adds.
This is only at the expense of the energy needed for
memory and thinking. Lin says that in some cases,
common, unknown damage can be leading to both the
hearing and cognitive losses.