It has been well documented that untreated hearing loss can lead to cognitive decline, but recent research from Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeon has found that even the earliest stages of hearing loss, when hearing is still considered normal, is linked to impaired cognition.
What Is Mild Hearing Loss?
Mild hearing loss has long been characterized as the inability to hear sounds under 25 dB. According to Justin S. Golub, M.D., M.S., assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Columbia, “Physicians in this field have used 25 dB—about the loudness of a whisper—to define the border between normal hearing and mild hearing loss in adults, but this level is arbitrary.”
“It has been assumed that cognitive impairment wouldn’t begin until people passed this threshold. But no one actually looked at whether this was true.”
In this study, researchers looked instead at people with even lower levels of hearing loss.
What Did the Study Find?
Researchers collected data from 6,451 adults with an average age of 59 who underwent both hearing and cognition tests. They found that for every 10 dB decrease in hearing abilities, there was a significant decrease in cognitive ability as well – a result that was consistent across all levels of hearing loss.
What surprised researchers most, though, was that the most significant decrease in cognitive ability occurred among those whose hearing was right at the 10-dB mark – just shy of perfect.
“Most people with hearing loss believe they can go about their lives just fine without treatment, and maybe some can,” Golub explained. “But hearing loss is not benign. It has been linked to social isolation, depression, cognitive decline, and dementia. Hearing loss should be treated. This study suggests the earlier, the better.”
Can Cognitive Decline Be Prevented?
While this particular study did not look into how hearing aids or other hearing loss treatments affect cognition, there are other studies that are. A new study funded by the National Institutes of Health is testing whether hearing aids can, in fact, slow cognitive decline in older adults.
For more information about the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline, schedule an appointment with Arizona Desert ENT Specialists.