“Mental acuity” is a term that gets frequently tossed around in context with aging. Most health care or psychology professionals call it sharpness of the mind in layman’s terms, but there are several factors that play into the measurement of mental acuity. Memory, focus and the ability to comprehend or understand are just some of the areas that can contribute to one’s mental acuity.
Mind-altering illnesses like dementia are generally thought of as the culprit for a decrease in mental acuity, but hearing loss has also been consistently linked as another major contributor to mental decline.
The connection between your hearing and dementia
In fact, one study out of Johns Hopkins University found a relationship between hearing loss, dementia and a reduction in cognitive function. Through a study of 2,000 men and women age 75-84 over a six-year span, researchers concluded that participants who suffered from hearing loss had a 30 to 40 percent faster decline in mental function than those with normal hearing.
Memory and concentration were two of the areas highlighted by the study in which researchers noticed a reduction in abilities. And though hearing loss is often considered a normal part of aging, one Johns Hopkins professor warned against downplaying its significance.
Problems from hearing impairments beyond memory loss
In another study, those same researchers found that a case of impaired hearing could not only quicken the process of mental decline, but is more likely to result in stress, depression or periods of unhappiness. In addition, that study’s hearing-impaired participants were more likely to become hospitalized or injured in a fall.
A study of 600 older adults in 2011 concluded that participants who suffered from hearing loss at the onset of the study were more inclined to develop dementia than those with normal hearing. Moreover, the study found a direct correlation between the severity of hearing loss and the likelihood to develop a mind-weakening condition. Participants with more severe hearing loss were as much as five times more likely to encounter symptoms of dementia.
But the work performed by researchers at Johns Hopkins is hardly the first to stake a claim for the connection between hearing loss and a lack of cognitive aptitude.
International research supports a correlation between hearing loss and mental decline
Published in 2014, a University of Utah study of 4,400 seniors discovered similar findings in that those with hearing impairments developed dementia more frequently and sooner than those with normal hearing.
One study in Italy took it a step further by analyzing two different causes of age-related hearing loss. Through the examination of peripheral and central hearing loss, researchers concluded that participants with central hearing loss were more likely to have a mild cognitive impairment than those with normal hearing or peripheral hearing loss. People with central hearing loss, which is caused by an inability to process sound, generally struggle to understand the words they can hear.
In the Italian study, participants with lower scores on speech comprehension assessments also had poorer scores on cognitive tests involving thought and memory.
Though researchers were confident in the connection between hearing loss and mental impairments, the cause behind the correlation remains a mystery.
The way hearing loss can affect mental acuity
However, researchers involved with the study in Italy do have a theory that revolves around the brain’s temporal cortex. In speaking on that potential cause, the study’s lead author highlighted the importance of the brain’s superior temporal gyrus which are ridges on the cerebral cortex that are located above the ear and play a role in the recognition of spoken words.
The theory suggests that age-related changes in the primary auditory cortex, which serves as a receiver of information before processing, along with concurrent modifications to the memory areas of the temporal cortex, could be a conduit to a loss of neurons in the brain.
What to do if you have hearing loss
The Italians believe this form of mild cognitive impairment is akin to a preclinical stage of dementia. Despite that preclinical diagnosis, it’s most definitely something to take seriously. And the number of Americans who may be in danger is staggering.
Two out of every three people over the age of 75 have lost some hearing ability, with a total of 48 million Americans suffering what is considered to be significant hearing loss. Hearing loss even affects 14 percent of those between the ages of 45 and 64.
The good news is that there are ways to mitigate these risks with a hearing aid, which can offer a significant improvement in hearing function for most people. According to that lead author of the Italian study, the use of a hearing aid could even reduce or delay mental decline by improving your hearing.