There are reasons to believe that hearing loss could directly contribute to declines in brain function, said lead researcher Dr. Frank Lin, an otologist and epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.
One is the fact that hearing loss can cause older adults to withdraw socially. When it becomes hard to hear what other people are saying, you might avoid going out or feel cut off from those around you, he noted.
"If you can't hear the person across from you at the dinner table, you won't be engaged in the conversation," Lin said.
That matters because a number of past studies have linked such social isolation and "loneliness" to an increased risk of dementia.
Another possibility, Lin said, is that hearing loss forces the brain to devote extra resources to processing the "garbled" signals it's getting from the ears.
"If you're redirecting brain resources to help with hearing," Lin explained, "that probably comes at the expense of something else -- like working memory."
There are a number of ways to help manage hearing loss, including hearing aids and assistive devices such as telephone amplifiers.
The "biggest question" now, according to Lin, is whether treating hearing loss can slow declines in brain function. He and his colleagues are planning a study to look at that question.
Hearing loss is common, affecting up to two-thirds of adults older than 70. But the fact that it's common doesn't mean it's harmless, both Lin and Polley pointed out.
"Hearing loss is more than an inconvenience or a source of embarrassment," Polley said. "Hearing represents a critical portal to conversation, a behavior that connects humans to one another socially and upon which our mental health greatly depends."
Doctors do not routinely screen older adults for hearing loss, so it's up to people to notice symptoms. Some
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