Can Hearing Aids Slow Cognitive Decline?

Many of us may have had some first-hand experience with grandparents or other older loved ones who vehemently deny their need for hearing aids, even after family members become frustrated having to yell just to be heard. In the final years of my grandparent’s lives, both my grandmother and grandfather, who lived to be in their 90s, desperately needed hearing aids due to normal age-related decline in their hearing abilities. However, as is common among older adults in this situation, they both refused to admit that their hearing wasn’t what it once was. Even after we were able to convince both of them to get fitted for a hearing aid, the times they actually wore them were few and far between.While this experience can be frustrating for the loved ones of those affected by hearing loss, many wouldn’t expect hearing loss to be directly related to other facets of one’s health and wellbeing. A National Public Radio (NPR) article I read recently shows that this is actually incorrect.

This article discusses research that found that untreated hearing loss can expedite age-related cognitive decline. As part of a longitudinal eighteen year study of 2,000 older adults in the United States, researchers with The University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study found that the use of hearing aids in adults suffering hearing loss can slow the age-related decline of cognitive abilities by as much as 75 percent (Maharani et al., 2018). In this study, cognitive abilities were assessed every two years with simple memory tasks such as recalling a list of ten words under a variety of different conditions. I found these significant findings to be quite surprising, but once you stop and think about it, it makes perfect sense. In this course thus far this semester we have talked about how our sensory systems take stimuli from the environment and translate those stimuli into neural signals and information our brain can process and use to do things like make decisions. While we have focused in large part on the visual system so far in our cognitive psychology course, we know that all five of our senses accomplish similar goals. Therefore, a gradual decline in hearing capabilities over time translates to a gradual decline in sensory input and neural activity in the corresponding areas of the brain. In addition, hearing loss can in some cases lead to a decrease in social opportunities and stimulation (Maharani et al., 2018). This lack of social stimulation may also decrease neural activity in the brain and further expedite cognitive decline.

These same researchers also conducted a recent study on the relationship between age-related vision loss and cognitive decline. Similar to hearing, vision plays a critical role in gathering input and information from our environment that our visual system converts into neural signals for processing in the brain. A common ailment in the visual system among older adults is cataracts. Cataracts obstruct the visual field sometimes to the point of partial blindness. For reasons similar to those discussed above in the context of hearing, a decline in visual input translates to a decline in neural activity in the brain. Researchers found that restoring good vision through cataract surgery can slow the rate of cognitive decline by as much as 50 percent (Maharani et al., 2018).

The NPR source did a good job summarizing key findings in both of the two related articles it discussed. The source connected the findings from the articles in a way that made sense and was easy to follow for the average reader. I think cognitive decline during aging is such an interesting and important area of study. With all of the ever-advancing medical technology that exists today, people are living longer than they ever have at any point throughout history. It is important that we spend time learning how to keep our minds healthy through all of these extra years. Perhaps the next time you hear a loved one deny their hearing loss or need for hearing aids stating, “you all just need to listen better,” you should present this research to them to provide some extra convincing!

Maharani, A., Dawes, P., Nazroo, J., Tampubolon, G., & Pendleton, N. (2018). Cataract surgery and age-related cognitive decline: A 13-year follow-up of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging. PLOS One, 13(11).

Maharani, A., Dawes, P., Nazroo, J., Tampubolon, G., & Pendleton, N. (2018). Longitudinal relationship between hearing aid use and cognitive function in older Americans. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 66(6), 1130-1136.

4 thoughts on “Can Hearing Aids Slow Cognitive Decline?

  1. ejones9

    Super interesting post! I like how you found this research and presented it in an understandable way. The connection to a known association of elderly people and hearing aids made the research applicable to real life. I also like how this research ties together both perception and memory. Very cool!

  2. rgallahan

    I agree with the person above me that this is a really easy to understand article! I feel never would have associated the two even though, like you said, it makes perfect sense too. The better one can receive information, process it, and understand it, the easier cognition is. If they lose ability to hear, the obviously can not perceive, because the ear is too busy trying to hear it in the first place. interesting article!

  3. jackkirschner

    This makes a lot of sense to me when this study is compared to cognitive development. With cognitive development in babies and young children the more they use their senses and get older with time getting used to their senses their cognition improves. So, it was make sense that the reverse would happen as you get older and start losing your senses that cognitive decline would occur. The biggest surprise to me when reading your blog was by just how much older people can slow their cognitive decline even at such an old age with the help of apparatuses like hearing aids. Your blog talks mostly about slowing down cognitive decline when restoring senses, it makes me wonder if it can actually help improve cognition as well. An example being that if someone where to get hearing aids after losing a large amount of their hearing and now have almost normal hearing compared to a healthy person, would they begin to revert to what their cognitive prime before the hearing loss began. Memory was also brought up in this post so would a person’s memory and ability to remember things also be improved when given a sensory restoring apparatus. This was a really interesting article to read and it never occurred to me that cognitive decline could be slowed down by such a degree by simply giving someone a hearing aid or cataract surgery to improve their senses. I think you did a really good job gathering information for this article and creating a sound argument.

  4. jwhearty

    I had never thought of hearing aids and cognition being correlated, but the post is right when one stops to think about it makes a lot of sense that it’s correlated. This does a good job of tying in what we learned in class about how we use all our senses to encode and process information that comes in from our environment. once one of those senses is taken away the brain has less information to use to solve cognitive problems. This will be good fact-based arguments to take to stubborn loved ones who have to hear that’s declining. It was also interesting reading about cataract surgery since my grandmother had to go through that surgery on both of her eyes. It’s good to know that her cognition decline won’t be affected as much as it would have had she not gotten the surgery. I agree that it’s important we take the time to learn how to keep our minds healthy as we age.

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