The Connection Between Hearing & Memory


Most people in Santa Barbara experience so-called “senior moments” from time to time. It’s natural to forget why we walked into the kitchen once in a while, but when memory impairment worsens, the culprit may be surprising: often, hearing loss is to blame.

Research Study Confirms Link

Box of old photographs

Hearing loss is widespread in Santa Barbara and across the country; about 20 percent of the population is affected, making it the third most common physical health condition in the U.S. There are many side effects of untreated hearing loss; a brief list includes anxiety, depression, fatigue, dementia, diabetes, kidney disease and an increased likelihood of falling.

You can add memory impairment to that list, according to a study by Johns-Hopkins University published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2013. Researchers followed 2,000 older adults for a six-year period, assessing their hearing and cognition when the study began and again at the five-year mark. None of the group’s participants displayed signs of cognitive impairment at the outset.

When the study concluded, researchers found that participants who began the study with the worst hearing loss (impairment defined as being severe enough to impact daily conversational ability) were 24 percent more likely to suffer from a decline in cognitive ability versus people with normal hearing. Often, memory loss was a key indicator and one of the first symptoms to appear.

How Are Hearing and Memory Related?

Experts point to several factors explaining the link between hearing and memory. For starters, contrary to popular belief, it is the brain – and not the ears – that is primarily responsible for hearing. Your ears collect sounds and send them to the brain for interpretation, so when you are unable to hear properly, your brain must work harder to decipher this sensory input.

With more competition for important cognitive resources, some areas inevitably get the so-called short end of the stick. Think memory and cognition. The more severe your hearing loss, the fewer mental resources are available elsewhere. This explains why those study participants with the worst hearing had the lowest memory and cognition scores.

Another key factor is the withdrawal from social activities that so many people with hearing loss experience. Isolation leads to a lack of mental stimulation, which in turn can actually cause the brain to shrink.

This leads to reduced memory and cognitive functioning. Individuals with hearing loss should make every effort to remain as active as possible to help keep their minds sharp.

The answer to preventing memory loss and cognitive decline is actually quite simple. Most patients with hearing loss in Santa Barbara benefit from wearing hearing aids, and studies show that people who wear them regularly to treat hearing loss have lower rates of impairment in these key areas.

If you have noticed a decline in your memory and haven’t had your hearing tested in a while, we recommend scheduling an appointment with a Santa Barbara audiologist soon.

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