Cognition and hearing loss: A better understanding
It is no secret that hearing loss has a significant impact on quality of life. Individuals with hearing loss report a higher rate of depression and greater feelings of social isolation than those without hearing loss. Other emotional issues can include anger and withdrawal. In other words, hearing loss often precipitates poor mental health. In addition, studies have also shown that people with hearing loss run a greater risk of falls and hospitalization.
All too often, hearing loss is brushed off as just a natural part of aging. But a recent study out of the UK, as well as new research in the United States, is beginning to shed new light on age-related hearing loss, and the results could be game changing. New research is showing a strong correlation between hearing loss and decreased cognitive function. Scientists at the University of Cambridge and the MRC Institute of Hearing Research in Nottingham found that the difficulty in understanding speech faced by older people is not just due to problems with peripheral hearing (i.e. the structure of the ear). The study indicates that problems with cognitive skills and central auditory processing (the way the brain processes and understands sounds) have a tremendous impact on age-related difficulties in understanding speech.
Indeed, recent research shows just how important a proper hearing screening is to overall health. In January 2014, Dr. Frank Lin, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University schools of medicine and public health, released the results of a study that compared brain changes over a period of time between adults with hearing loss and those without hearing loss. The study showed that the participants with hearing loss at the beginning of the study had accelerated rates of brain atrophy compared to those with no hearing loss. Those with hearing loss also had significantly more shrinkage in certain regions of the brain, particularly the regions responsible for processing sound and speech. Simply put: those parts of the brain atrophied, just like an unused muscle would.
Given all of this, it stands to reason that if researchers can gain a deeper understanding of cognitive function as it relates to speech understanding (rather than focusing on just peripheral hearing), new treatments and programs could be developed that could improve the quality of life for millions.
Unfortunately, in 2012 the United States Preventative Task Force (USPTF) put out a statement that was most notable not for what it said, but rather for what it didn’t say. In a shocking about-face, it failed to recommend that those ages 50 and older be screened for hearing loss. “We just don’t have enough evidence to show there would be a benefit,” said Dr. Albert Siu, a vice chairman of the task force and chairman of geriatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “Hearing loss hasn’t been adequately addressed in the research literature.” And with that, the American Academy of Family Physicians immediately changed its position and stopped endorsing periodic hearing screening for older adults.
Yet when the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA) surveyed 2,232 members of AARP, 68 percent reported that they believed their hearing health didn’t get the same amount of attention garnered by other health concerns. 76 percent said hearing was of great importance to them, yet fewer than 50 percent reported undergoing a hearing test within the last five years. In the U.S., fewer than 15 percent of seniors actually get hearing tests; if they do, tests are sometimes nothing more than short questionnaires or a cursory “look-see” with an otoscope by a family physician.
It should be noted that, contrary to the USPTF, ASHA recommends that adults be screened for hearing loss every 10 years through age 50 and every three years after that. A hearing test only takes about 30 minutes and comprehensively measures hearing sensitivity to pure tones and speech.
A deeper understanding of hearing loss, both its causes and its effects, is crucial. The hope is that individuals with age-related hearing loss could benefit from cognitive and perceptual training exercises, and thus can have an improved quality of life. That includes better physical health, better mental health, improved relationships, and the ability to continue to engage in society. To make sure you're receiving the best care and are living the highest quality life possible, make an appointment with your hearing healthcare professional for your annual checkup; more than just your hearing will benefit.