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.
Caregiving advocates are using this study to tell
those who care for loved ones to pay attention, and
ask for audiology tests to be a part of annual
exams. Professionals say that many seniors put off
addressing hearing loss for as long as 20 years,
without realizing the more severe consequences they
can have long term. Lin believes a fair estimate is
that as many as 27 million Americans more than 50
years of age, and two-thirds of men and women older
than 70, have some form of hearing loss. The bigger
concern, he believes, is that only 15 percent of
those who need hearing assistance devices actually
Barbara Weinstein says that a limitation to Lin’s
study is the reliance on the Modified Mini-Mental
State Exam, which uses an interviewer to ask
questions. She is a professor and head of the
audiology program at CUNY’s Graduate Center.
Research that Weinstein has done reveals that
seniors with hearing loss may not understand
verbally asked questions and answer incorrectly.
Lin is addressing this through hopefully another
research project to follow a group of seniors and
test whether the interventions for hearing loss,
such as hearing aids, will help prevent the onset or
slow cognitive decline.
Until those numbers become available, experts
agree that the first step in preventing this collide
of hearing and cognitive loss is recognizing it
before any situation worsens.
HOW TO RECOGNIZE HEARING LOSS IN A LOVED ONE
- If a loved one is asking others to repeat
what they’ve said, and says people are always
mumbling or not speaking clearly. Pay attention
if other family members recognize the loved one
is not hearing well.
- If a loved one cups their hand behind an ear
- If the television or radio volume is
louder than usual.
- If a loved one says they are
experiencing ringing or buzzing in one or both
ears, or is dizzy often.
- If a loved one is leaning forward or turning
their head to be able to listen to a
- If a loved one is beginning to avoid
certain situations because they have a hard time
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