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Does Hearing Loss Impact Memory? Yes

Updated: Oct 10, 2020

As we grow into older adulthood it can be fairly common to experience increased difficulty with hearing. In particular, older adults can have difficulty in accurately perceiving speech in a noisy environment. A noisy environment can range from running into your neighbor at a local grocery store, attending a party, grabbing coffee with a friend at café, or just having dinner around the dining table. One question this raises is whether or not you are actually experiencing hearing loss or are the heightened background noises just competing for brain resources. Hearing loss doesn’t just affect our ears. It also impacts our social engagement and cognition (attention, processing speed, and learning/memory).

Research over the years has shown that older adults with hearing loss do worse on tests of learning and memory as compared to peers without hearing loss. A recent article in JAMA Otolaryngology had researchers review two large population databases of 6,451 people who had had hearing and cognitive testing. The research showed that those who were 50 or older had cognitive scores that seemingly declined even before they reached clinically defined hearing loss (subclinical hearing loss). The research also noted that the association between hearing and cognition is stronger among subjects with normal hearing compared to those with hearing loss.

Just because these things are associated doesn’t mean that they are causally related. Therefore, if you notice hearing problems it is important to have your hearing tested. These problems could include (but are not limited to) challenges hearing when in social settings, requiring the radio or television at higher volumes, or constantly requiring people to repeat themselves.

If you are an older person experiencing hearing loss typically your threshold for sound detection has reduced (meaning that you are more likely going to need the volume turned up on the tv). In addition, you will likely have some trouble distinguishing speech from background noise and increasing the volume doesn’t help this problem. In turn, these difficulties can make socializing less enjoyable which then causes the individual to become more socially isolative or less willing to engage in conversations.

By taking care of your hearing, you are addressing an obvious issue (hearing loss) with not-so-obvious consequences (cognition).Hearing aids are one option for improving hearing acuity. Unfortunately, hearing aid use is very low despite the high incidence of hearing loss. Recent research has also suggested that the use of hearing aids not only restores the capacity to hear but it can improve brain function and working memory. On the other hand, other researchers have noted that having hearing aids doesn’t mean that it has solved an underlying issue. Instead, they noted that improved hearing capacity probably bought time, delaying onset of symptoms. Left untreated, hearing loss may be a sign that dementia, for example, could come about two years earlier.

With that said, for some people, what might appear to be signs of memory loss could actually point to hearing issues. All in all, do not ignore symptoms of hearing loss, because you do not want to miss an opportunity to address hearing deficits. So do not hesitate to ask your medical provider specific details about your hearing results.

If you live in the New Jersey or New York area and would like to schedule a neuropsychological evaluation for yourself or a family member in order to determine if there have been any potential cognitive changes that would be atypical or unexpected for your age please contact Dr. Corey Burchette at 201-577-8286 to inquire about scheduling an appointment at the New Jersey Memory Center which is located in Verona, New Jersey. Easily accessible from many points in North Jersey (including Montclair, Upper Montclair, Cedar Grove, Bloomfield, Glen Ridge, Caldwell, West Caldwell, North Caldwell, Totowa, Wayne, Little Falls, West Orange, Maplewood, Livingston, and many more).

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