Hearing and Cognitive Function Go Hand-in-Hand

We all know that as we age, things change. One of those changes is often to our hearing. Age-related hearing loss affects a significant number of older adults in the United States:

  • About 25 percent of people between the ages of 55 and 64 have some degree of hearing loss.
  • Almost 50 percent of people over the age of 65 have some degree of hearing loss.

Could this change in our hearing also be affecting our cognitive function? Research says yes. What many experts are still trying to uncover is the exact reason for this link. Theories abound.

Why does hearing affect cognition?

There are numerous theories as to why age-related hearing loss may play a role in cognition function, specifically cognitive decline. What makes it most interesting and complicated to get to the root of, is that the connection crosses physical and psychological boundaries. It’s not just the physical pieces like the damaged hair cells of the inner ear, it also involves how our minds process information. How they grow and change and adapt to new realities over time. The possibilities could be endless!

Here are some of the most accepted current theories about age-related hearing loss and cognition:

Common Cause Theory: This theory looks at the hearing loss and cognitive decline as symptoms of something deeper. Experts cite possible causes such as genetics, stria vascularis degeneration, cardiovascular/cerebrovascular diseases, oxidative stress, or general physical health. The argument is that treatment of the just the symptoms would be ineffective as there is a bigger force at work that may or may not be treatable.

Cognitive Load Theory: This theory focuses on the brain’s ability to process information. Proponents believe that as hearing ability declines increasing the difficulty of understanding speech and other incoming sounds, the requirements placed on the brain to process that information increase. The brain, to accommodate the increased demand, begins shifting resources away from other areas of the brain. . Experts believe that this “cognitive overload” causes the brain itself to change over time leading to cognitive decline.

Overdiagnosis or Harbinger Theory: This theory posits that the connection may be rooted in a sort of human error. That is to say, when those with hearing loss are given verbal cognitive tests, they may not be able to hear or understand the instructions clearly. This leads to scores that would indicate cognitive decline when in reality, it was barriers to communication. Experts also point to the flip side of the coin in hearing evaluations. When those with decreased cognitive function take a hearing test, their hearing levels may show as less due to insufficient understanding of what’s required in each step of the test.

Cascade Theory: This theory also looks at the bigger picture of cause and effect. Experts believe that hearing loss itself triggers specific physical, mental and emotional changes that lead to cognitive decline. We know hearing loss can be life-changing, especially untreated hearing loss. It can make communication more difficult often leading to decreased socialization, anxiety and even depression. This reduced interaction, proponents theorize, changes the makeup of the brain leading to cognitive decline.

While the jury is still out on the exact reason behind the link between hearing loss and cognition function, studies continue to find evidence that the two go hand-in-hand.

If you believe you or someone you care about has hearing loss, contact our office to schedule a hearing evaluation. Protect your brain. Get your hearing loss treated today.


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