It is not just hearing that is lost when a person loses their auditory ability; other cognitive capabilities are at risk as well. Yes, losing hearing can lead to memory loss or dementia. There are about 48 million Americans who have some degree of hearing loss in America, and the proportion with hearing loss is about two of every three adults in their seventies or older. These same people are appreciably more likely to also develop memory deficits and even dementia.
But this works the other direction as well. Some recent research shows that treating hearing loss can help to prevent the cognitive decline. In a recent study among 65 to 85 year old individuals with severe hearing loss – deafness – in at least one of their ears, all patients received a cochlear implant and subsequent auditory rehab. More than four in five of those who started with the lowest cognitive scores showed statistically significant improvement in their cognition a year later. This improvement was about double what has been seen with the cognitive improvement associated with some of the FDA-approved drugs for treating Alzheimer’s disease. It looks promising.
There is much speculation on precisely why there can be improved cognitive function with improved hearing, but at the very least it may have to do with social engagement. People who cannot hear tend to be less socially active and more isolated. And all of that has long been recognized as a contributor to mental decline. If you are a caregiver to an older loved one, you may not be able to clearly quantify their cognitive ability. But the odds are that you can appreciate when a mom or dad is just having trouble hearing you and others around them. So, let that be a double warning sign to protect them from both further hearing loss and also memory loss. Get a hearing test scheduled as soon as you detect any of the early signs of hearing compromise.
Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Advisor, Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.