For the 48 million Americans who experience hearing loss, the dangers of cognitive impairment have been well-known for years. The link between hearing impairment and cognition has been well-established through numerous studies. Up until now, it was believed that cognitive decline did not occur until hearing loss had reached an advanced stage, but a new study shows that cognition may be affected much earlier than previously thought, meaning even individuals with mild hearing impairment may be affected.
The long-accepted definition of hearing loss has centered around an inability to hear sounds that are quieter than 25 decibels (dB)—about the sound of a whisper. This threshold has always been arbitrary, however; many experts feel that it needs to be redefined. A new study provides even more incentive to revise the definition.
Dr. Justin S. Golub, MD, lead researcher and a physician in New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University’s Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, assembled a team to examine data from 6,500 study participants who were administered a series of hearing and cognition tests. To their surprise, researchers found “clinically significant” levels of cognitive decline in people with mild hearing loss between 15 and 20 dB—a measurement considered “good but not perfect” hearing by many physicians.
These results offer the first substantial evidence that the link between hearing and cognition occurs earlier than previously believed. The implications are serious. Because untreated hearing loss is associated with a number of serious health conditions, mild hearing loss might not be considered serious—but if cognitive decline is developing earlier than anticipated, the patient’s risk for associated health problems is greater. Early detection and treatment are the keys to preventing many of these side effects.
Despite evidence of the link between hearing and cognition, scientists don’t know whether hearing loss causes cognitive impairment. Experts theorize that the mental energy required to decipher words results in reduced cognitive activity in other key areas like memory, but further studies are needed.
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Source: Golub JS, Brickman AM, Ciarleglio AJ, Schupf N, Luchsinger JA. Association of Subclinical Hearing Loss With Cognitive Performance. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2020; 146(1):57-67. Doi:10.1001/jamaoto.2019.3375