In the initial findings of a landmark study currently being conducted at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, researchers are reporting that untreated, age-related hearing loss -or presbyacusis- can lead to a more-rapid deterioration of higher brain function.
According to the study, older adults with untreated hearing loss are, on average, shown to develop a significant impairment in their cognitive abilities approximately three years sooner than those with normal hearing.
The findings, reported in January in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine, are among the first to emerge from the ongoing study monitoring the health of nearly 2,000 men and women between the ages of 75 and 84 of varying cultural backgrounds.
Researchers assert that a possible explanation could exist in the link between hearing loss and social isolation, with loneliness being well established as a risk factor for cognitive decline. Deteriorated listening abilities may also force the brain to devote too much of its energy to processing sound at the expense of memory and thinking.
There is no single cause of age-related hearing loss, but excessive noise exposure has been identified as a major risk factor. Frequent exposure to loud or moderately loud noise over a long period of time can damage the soft tissue of the inner ear. Symptoms could include, but are certainly not limited to: missing nuances in conversations, frequently asking people to repeat what they’ve just said, or a continued need to increase the volume on your TV or radio.
It is estimated that in the US, as many as 27 million Americans over age 50, including two-thirds of men and women aged 70 and older, suffer from some form of hearing loss. More worrying is that only 15% of those who need a hearing aid get one, leaving much of the problem and its consequences untreated.
A major frustration from hearing professionals is that many people who need a hearing aid don’t get one for a variety of reasons including the social stigmatization of hearing loss and a lack of access to hearing loss education or affordable care. These factors could lead to extended periods of untreated loss which, in turn, would exacerbate the effects of the hearing loss on brain function.