Hearing Impairment and Cognitive Function

Many of us take hearing for granted, but humans are unique in the way we interpret noises from our environment: We are able to utilize cognitive processes (knowledge, memory and intelligence) with the sensory input we receive. This allows us to communicate, learn and share thoughts and ideas. When treating hearing loss, hearing specialists understand the interaction between hearing and cognition plays a crucial role in providing patients with a reliable and effective solution.

Our peripheral and central nervous systems extract and interpret information from multiple, competing sounds in our listening environment, assigning meaning to what might otherwise be considered background clutter. When you suffer from hearing loss, your ability to gauge the meaning of a sound is compromised, leading to confusion and frustration – proof of the strong correlation between hearing and cognition.

Studies show that patients with poor hearing rely on acquired knowledge in order to fill in the missing blanks. This allows those who wear hearing devices to utilize cognitive reserves in order to fill in the blanks when auditory signals are at a minimum. When hearing is compromised, our cognitive system must work harder to interpret sensory input data by applying previously acquired knowledge from our cognitive reserves to help make sense of the world around us.

Hearing specialists are still working to understand the impact of hearing loss on cognition; it appears to be more significant than previously realized. A 2013 study of more than 2,000 people aged 75–84 found that cognitive abilities amongst those with hearing loss declined 30–40% faster than in people with normal hearing. This correlation was further proven in a study published in 2014 that followed nearly 4,500 patients over the age of 65. It showed that those with hearing loss at the beginning of the study developed dementia at a higher rate and earlier than those without a hearing loss.

These recent findings reinforce the importance of detecting and treating hearing loss as soon as possible in patients of all ages. Aural rehabilitation can help by training the brain to improve cognition. Simply put, providing the best sound quality delivered at the best possible signal-to-noise ratio eases the cognitive burden, improving the ability to hear while reducing the effects of cognitive decline such as dementia. Amplification technologies and wireless connectivity all translate to improved sound quality and a lower cognitive burden. In short, the easier it is to listen, the better our ability to hear. With the right combination of early detection and effective hearing loss treatment, audiologists can help patients regain control over their cognitive health.

Further Reading