Slight hearing loss and cognitive decline, a dementia risk factor

Last update on Apr, 15, 2020

Even the mildest cases of hearing loss may lead to cognitive decline, say researchers at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Previous research has shown that hearing loss increases the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. However, those earlier studies used 25 decibels (dB) as the threshold for hearing loss. As explained in a Reuters Health article, the new study used a 15 dB threshold, which is equivalent to the volume of a whisper or rustling leaves. With hearing loss at that level, older adults in the study had “clinically meaningful” cognitive decline.

Scientists are trying to understand why hearing loss is connected to cognitive decline. One possible explanation: The brain must devote so much attention to hearing that other cognitive functions don’t get “exercised.”

“People with worse hearing use so much more brainpower to decode the words that are said, they don’t get to process the meaning of what was said,” stated the study’s lead author, Dr. Justin Golub, assistant professor in the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Can treatment of hearing loss improve cognitive functioning? Researchers are attempting to answer this question through a randomized controlled trial. Dr. Golub “suspects that people might be able to remain more mentally sharp if they started wearing hearing aids as soon as they started to have even mild issues with hearing,” says the Reuters Health article.

Much more than a personal issue

Cognitive decline isn’t just about a person’s ability to function in society — it’s a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. This holds true even for milder cases of cognitive decline, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Besides the devastating impact on patients and family members, dementia comes with an enormous price tag. In 2018 the direct cost of caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s and other dementias totaled an estimated $277 billion, says the Alzheimer’s Association, which concluded: “Alzheimer’s is the most expensive disease in America, costing more than cancer and heart disease.”

Not surprisingly, health insurers bear much of this economic burden, leading to the question: What more can be done to prevent dementia, reduce the associated health care costs and improve quality of life for health plan members and their families?

For a growing number of health insurers, especially those with Medicare Advantage plans, the multifaceted response includes a hearing benefit, which gives members access to high-quality, yet affordable, hearing aids and hearing health care services. 

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