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Can Hearing Loss Prematurely Age Your Mind?

That is the question that a group of researchers from John Hopkins University set out to discover the answer to by means of a 11 year long study that pitted normal hearing elderly ones against those with mild or moderate hearing loss in a standardized test used to determine cognitive function. The results may encourage you to take that hearing test that you have been avoiding.

The study was performed because researchers are concerned over the growing number of dementia cases (estimates say the number of dementia patients will double over the next 20 years) and are searching for the reason this is occurring. An aging population is the primary cause, but this study was intended to connect the hearing loss associated with aging directly to the problem of cognitive impairment. The question is: What results did they come up with, and how should it impact the decisions of a person who becomes hard of hearing?

The study was performed using 1162 individuals. They were tested using the 3MS exam and the Digit Symbol Substitution test. These tests are used to observe changes in cognitive ability for the elderly. They can also be used to predict the risk of cognitive impairment in the case of degenerative conditions. Testing occurred several times over the course of years 5 through 11 of the study, measuring cognitive decline over the course of 6 years. A score of less than 80 is considered indicative of cognitive impairment, however, for those who tested particularly well or poorly early in the study, their impairment score was considered being 5 points below their baseline score.

The results of the test were shocking. Those with hearing loss, even mild or moderate hearing loss, experience a cognitive decline up to 40 percent faster than those who had no hearing problems. The tests also showed that they were 24 percent more likely to be at risk for cognitive impairment. A 5 point decline on the test generally occurs over the course of just under 11 years for a person with normal hearing. A person suffering from hearing loss sees the same decline occur in less than 7 and two thirds years. That gives a person with sharper hearing more than 4 years of additional time with good cognitive function late in life. So the answer appears to be yes, hearing loss can in fact age a person's thinking ability prematurely.

Of course, you may wonder why the connection between hearing and cognitive decline exists in the first place. Researchers speculate that the social isolation that occurs when a person starts to lose their hearing is the primary reason for the rapid decline. We need that regular interaction, but it is tough to maintain when you constantly find yourself asking “What?” or answering a misheard comment inappropriately.

If you are experiencing hearing loss but have been reluctant to get your hearing checked, this research shows how vital it is to stop putting it off. If you can gain an extra 4 years or more of functional mental faculties by maintaining your hearing, isn't that worth it? Now is the time to take control of your hearing loss, before it starts to wear your thinking processes down before your time.